The Search for Sustainable Bioplastics

February 14, 2014

triangle land conservancy plastic

Recycling is good. By placing glass, aluminum, plastic, and other materials in designated recycling bins or dropping them off at recycling centers, we are attempting to do our part for the environment by reducing waste. Still, according to the Container Recycling Institute 60 million water bottles are thrown away each day in the U.S., and only 4% of those recycled are turned into new plastic bottles. Most American plastic bottles can only be recycled once into products like toothbrush handles, fleece, rugs, or other items destined for the landfill when they live out their usefulness, and much plastic cannot be recycled at all. Furthermore, plastic requires millions of metric tons of oil for its production each year.

“Can Plastic be Made Environmentally Friendly?” asks a recent article by Daniel Lippman featured in Scientific American. Mark Herrema of Newlight Technologies says an emphatic yes.
The invention of different forms of “bioplastic” is hoping to change the way Americans produce and use plastics. In their two facilities, Herrema and his partner have designed a new production process: “What Newlight does is take methane, mix it with air, put that into a reactor and then turn it into liquid.” Carbon is pulled from the liquid, which is “then melted down and a spaghettilike strand of plastic emerges, which is finally diced into pellets.”

Plastic made from methane – like the gas produced on farms or landfills – bypasses the need for fossil-fuels in addition to preventing methane, a greenhouse gas, from entering the atmosphere. What can bioplastic be used for? Well, just about everything, including, “electronics, automobile parts, beverage caps, packaging, and more.”

The potential market for bioplastic is huge. Coca-Cola, Total, Odwalla, and Pantene are just a few of the large companies and brands showing interest in bioplastics. There are industry successes already, as later this year Virgin Mobile will begin using Newlight’s plastic to make cellphone cases, and another form of bioplastic, Ingeo, is used “by Dannon for its Activita yogurt in Germany, Stoneyfield Farm in its yogurt containers, and Wal-Mart in its deli and vegetable packaging.” As consumers, it is important to seek out these products and prove to companies that investing in bioplastic can be profitable.

While bioplastics can reduce methane emissions while cutting down on fossil fuel consumption, it is critical that they are also recyclable in the long term or, dare I say it, biodegradable. When a day comes where most plastic bottles are recycled into new plastic bottles in infinity, the world will have taken one giant stride closer towards a sustainable future.

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