Gates Boosts Biodegradable Plastics Development
Recently the bio-degradable plastics industry got a financial and morale boost by Bill Gates, who has invested with Philadelphia-based Renmatix, Inc., to commercialize their Plantrose technology. Microdyne Plastics has long been concerned about recycling plastic where conceivable and also supports the development of biodegradable plastics. So we are pleased to see recognition of the developing industry from outside investment.
Already 2.5 billion plastic bottles have been made by Coca-Cola that include plastics that are made partially from materials made from biomass plants. This material is made from sugarcane into polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic[i]. PET is a form of polyester. These fully recyclable bottles were introduced in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Conference.
Biomass (plants and vegetable fats and oils and microbes) is a renewable source of material and generally can be broken down by the environment.
Worldwide, about 50 million tons of PET are produced each year for items such as fabrics, electronics, and recyclable beverage containers. PET is made from two components, terephthalic acid and ethylene glycol. These are derived from refined petroleum and natural gas. During this process CO2, which is a “greenhouse” gas[ii] is formed.
Stanford scientists have developed new ways to create plastic from CO2 and plant material such as grasses and agricultural waste. This would be a new technology to make a low carbon alternative to oil based plastic bottles[iii].
Other variations exist as well. This task is to make the polymer molecule chains for plastic using non-petroleum based materials. Chemistry is working on several ways to do this. The promise is a cleaner, more sustainable product overall.
While the chemistry looks promising, other obstacles exist as well that will need to be overcome. Scientific American has long suggested that other issues exist. An early test by Frito-Lay in 2009 ran into the consumer as the problem. The sound of the Sun Chips bags was rejected by customers as a louder crinkling noise than they liked. The customer must buy any new biomass plastic in order for it to be successful. But more difficult problems may exist as well. Using sugarcane for instance, may have an effect on food production as corn ethanol has in the United States. Other issues must also be considered, such as the cost of large scale crop energy use and transportation from remote locations to plastic-producing plants. Some production of these plants, such as energy-intensive corn raising, consumes fertilizer and other chemicals. Access to farmland comes with a pressure to the food system[iv].
Meanwhile Bill Gates must see the economy to justify his investment. Renmatix is running a 7000 pound per day test plant in Kennesaw, Georgia, and a feedstock processing facility in New York. Their patented Plantrose process reduces costs in the conversion of biomass to sugars for plastic monomers. This provides a faster reaction with minimal waste. Renmatrix says its process will produce more and cost less.
Replacing the large variety of plastic characteristics available for a wide variety of products is a tall order. Proponents who suggest that biomass plastics will quickly replace petroleum-based plastics is probably overblown and media hype. However, just getting biomass plastic to the consumer is still a huge win.
Plastic product marketers need to learn how to promote environmentally better products to the customer in a much more effective way. In addition to biomass products, other advances such as BPA free products are still classified in an “other” classification. The industry could start by revision and adding a new plastic classification type for just non-leaching and biomass products of the future. Microdyne encourages the use of packaging that educates customers about the diffentiators of more environmentally acceptable plastics.
Biomass plastics are on the way. It may not overwhelm the vast plastics industry right away, but it is a good start. Let’s keep it going.
[i] Scientific American, Sustainability, Plastic From Plants, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-plastic-from-plants-good-for-the-environment-or-bad/
[ii] Stanford News, “Stanford scientists make renewable plastic from carbon dioxide,” http://news.stanford.edu/2016/03/09/low-carbon-bioplastic-030916/
[iv] Scientific American, Sustainability, Plastic From Plants, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-plastic-from-plants-good-for-the-environment-or-bad/