Trends for 2015: The Coming of Bioplastic

January 15, 2015
Trends for 2015: The Coming of Bioplastic

A question mark exists over the continued feasibility of petroleum-based products. Simple mathematics predicts the day when that last surging wellspring of crude oil trickles to a halt. Fortunately, science is preparing for this eventuality. There are chemical technologies processing waste and converting refuse plastic into usable products, but this area of recycling proficiency still lacks in overall efficiency. For example, water bottles are made from PET, a versatile fossil-fuel product known as polyethylene terephthalate. Environmental lobbyists argue that while the plastic is safe and incredibly useful, easy to recycle into a PET resin for new applications, the recycle rate for the bottles lays around the thirty percent mark. That’s nowhere near enough considering the billions of plastic bottles being used every day.

Beyond green concerns, the need to keep the planet pollution-free, industry cannot support this level of petroleum wastage, not when the cost of fuel is rocketing and industry experts are scrambling for alternatives to crude oil. One solution, a direction receiving investment in 2015, is to direct our resources into bioplastics. This class of plastic was first uncovered when chemists learned that petroleum wasn’t the only polymer source on the planet. Natural polymers abound in nature if we know where to look for them. Soy protein is a natural polymer. Cellulose is a natural polymer. Look toward soy products and we see plastics arising with properties that meet or even exceed their fossil-fuel counterparts. The molecules are even arranged intelligently to achieve biodegradable breakdown thanks to catalytic action with natural micro-organisms that devolve the plastic into a recyclable soup.

Mainstream manufacturers of high-end plastics are now assigning up to twenty percent of their sourcing to acre-after-acre of corn fields and reservoirs of soy protein. 2015 suggests that coming trends will back up the momentum of this bioplastic surge by presenting new options for current issues. For example, aeronautics requires a lightweight but tough construction for the various assemblies that tie together in an aircraft or satellite. Carbon fibre is one solution, but the material remains expensive. Reinforcement through the production of fibrous bioplastics made from hemp and flax is a more affordable and now more realistic option.

Finally, the land masses we all know and love are working hard to turn corn and soy into plastics and fuel, and we predict these technologies will yield fantastic results, but the oceans occupy a far larger area of our precious planet. Descending to the bottom of this salty realm, algae and seaweed could herald the next age of plastic. Algae is everywhere, washing up on beaches, acting as the nasty scum on ponds. It eats pollution in the form of carbon monoxide, attacking petrochemical quandaries on the plastics front and flanking environmental clean-up issues.