Weren’t we just saying that oil and gas stakeholders probably should not count on plastic as a hedge against falling demand for fossil fuels? We were, and now here comes another country heard from: the bioplastic material FLAM. That’s FLAM as in Fungus-Like Adhesive Material, not the lifestyle brand featured in the hit movie Knives Out!. Anyways, it sure looks like the knives are out for petrochemicals these days. The latest FLAM research hits the sustainability trifecta by pulling in food waste recycling and 3-D printing, too.
The Plastics Innovation Challenge: Buh-Bye, Petrochemicals
Before we dig too deeply into the FLAM pile, let’s take a quick look at a new US Energy Department initiative called the Plastics Innovation Challenge. It brings up more evidence that the US is pivoting out of petrochemical dependence over the long run, even as US oil and gas production continues to boom (well, except for a little glitch due to that thing between Saudi Arabia and Russia, but who could have foreseen that?).
Where were we? Oh right, the big pivot. Acknowledging that plastic waste is a “growing global challenge,” the new Challenge rallies DOE resources to develop next-generation plastics that “are recyclable-by-design and can be scaled for domestic manufacturability.”
That seems to leave plenty of wiggle room for petrochemicals, and in fact much of the Challenge is focused on capturing, recycling, and upcycling conventional plastic waste.
On the other hand, that thing about “recyclable-by-design” suggests that petrochemicals are not the way to go moving forward. The basic idea is that recycling needs to be as efficient as possible, and conventional plastic does not necessarily fit that bill.
Sure enough, just a few weeks after announcing the Challenge, DOE issued a public notice of intent for expanding another new program called BOTTLE, for Bio-Optimized Technologies to Keep Thermoplastics out of Landfills and the Environment.
BOTTLE goes right for the petrochemical jugular. In addition to new recycling strategies for conventional plastic, the program supports “high-impact research and development” focusing on “new bio-based plastics that are capable of efficient recyclability.”
For that matter, the parallel effort to improve recycling for conventional plastic is also bad news for oil and gas producers, to the extent that it helps tamp down the demand for fresh supplies of raw material.
FLAM! Bio-based Plastic To The Rescue
They took FLAM and applied it to cities, with the interrelated goals of reducing four things all at once: intercontinental shipping, energy-intensive manufacturing processes, toxic chemicals, and end-of-life issues involved in synthetic materials.
Over and above all that, the SUTD study also zeroes in on a pathway for cities to monetize the pesky problem of food waste.
First, they took a look at the easy part. FLAM is made with cellulose, which can be reclaimed from paper and other wood-type urban waste, including textiles. Those materials are available locally almost anywhere in the world, which helps to resolve the intercontinental shipping issue.
The hard part is that FLAM also relies on a natural polymer called chitin, and right now chitin is mainly sourced at scale as a byproduct of the fishing industry. Developing a global FLAM supply chain on that basis would require a fairly intensive reliance on global shipping, which opens all kinds of cans of worms in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Food Waste Solution To Plastic Pollution
To get around the chitin supply problem, the SUTD team took a look at at other sources of chitin, especially the exoskeleten of the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens for those of you keeping score at home).
As described by SUTD, the black soldier fly is “known for its efficient breakdown of a wide variety of organic materials, such as food waste into proteins, oils and other biomass, thus reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfills.”
With that thing about intercontinental shipping in mind, the study emphasizes that other types of insects, as well as fungi and worms, are also good at processing food waste, and they could also become potential sources of chitin at scale.
Let’s Hear It For The Circular Economy
If this is all sounding rather like the sparkling green circular economy of the future, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.
“Bio conversion via insects, fungi and worms, is not only gaining popularity as an effective solution to urban waste management, but it also suggests for an emergent paradigm of a circular urban ecology, spanning from material production and manufacturing to end-of-life reclamation,” explains SUTD.
The 3-D printing angle is also critical, because it is an energy efficient process that enables small-scale factories to be located closer to their supply chains and end users.
This is all good stuff, though it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of relying on single-use, disposable items. If you have any thoughts on that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Meanwhile, FLAM is not the only threat faced by the petrochemical industry. Cyanobacteria is closing in fast as a source of raw material for bioplastic, the beverage and auto industries are moving into alternative materials, and then there’s that whole “Green Chemistry” movement promoted by the American Chemical Society.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to ACS for some insights on the future direction of the bioplastic field, in consideration of potential conflicts involving land and water resources, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image: Schematic of the developed closed production loop based on bioinspired chitinous materials and bioconversion in an urban environment,” by SUTD via Eurekalert.
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