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Where the money is in bioplastics

by Green Plastics


Keeping up with the news about bioplastics can sometimes feel like an endless stream of press-releases about new partnerships, new “promising” research, and new business collaborations.  What can get lost in the river of details is the fact that these announcements are all usually driven by the same underlying motivation.  All of the businesses know “where the money is” in bioplastics, and it is in answering a single underlying question:  what is the perfect combination of A + B + C?

Let me explain.

As an educational site about bioplastics, we have emphasized again and again that bioplastics are created by a combination of three types of ingredients: one or more types of polymer (like starch or poly-lactic acid), one or more types of plasticizer (like glycerol), and one or more types of additives.  You vary the kinds and amounts of each of these three things to get plastics with different properties.  This is why it’s so easy to make basic bioplastics at home, like our do-it-yourself article on how to make algae bioplastic explains.  You just have to make sure you have the three basic ingredients: A + B + C.

But for the big manufacturing companies, the key is to find the perfect combination of ingredients to have exactly the perfect desired set of properties.  It has to be strong, it has to be heat-resistent, it has to look good.  For some applications, it has to bend without breaking; for other applications it has to be solid and inflexible.  Unfortunately, this involves balancing a number of different factors.  Much of the time, an additive that will make a bioplastic stronger will also make it less biodegradable, or will be derived more from non-renewable resources, so that the “green value” of the plastic is decreased.  The big money and big research opportunities in bioplastic right now are in coming up with the ideal recipe for bioplastics that balance all of these requirements.

And sure enough, that is what they are doing.  For example, recently in the news there have been reports about the U.S. Department of Agriculture chemist William J. Orts and a team of collaborators being hard at work figuring out what needs to be added to poly-lactic acid (PLA) to allow it to be more heat-resistant. 

Similarly, all of the recent media fuss over NEC’s plastic based on cashew shells was really about the problem of balancing the need to keep the materials in the plastic green and the need to have a final product that has the right properties.  As observed in one article, the big breakthrough that NEC was responsible for was finding a particular combination of polymer and additive that allowed the resulting plastic to (simultaneously) be based primarily on renewable non-food resources, be biodegradable, and be heat-resistent enough to use in electronics. 

So when you are scanning the news for talk of bio-plastics (as we do here at green-plastics.net) you should keep this “theme” in mind.  Most of the research announcements and big business collaborations are focused, in one way or another, around this one very fundamental question:  what is the perfect combination of ingredients we need to combine to get the perfect combination of properties in our plastic?

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