The new bioeconomy

15 05 2012

Last week we explored using biomass as fuel, and some of the implications in doing that.  Previously we looked at using biomass in the world of fabrics and furnishings,  which include the new biotech products polylactic acid (PLA) (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery  (click  here and here to see our posts).  The ideas being presented by new bio technologies are not new – in the 19th century Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold – and the idea has always held a fascination for humans.

There is a new report called “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) published by The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies.  This report paints an even more troubling picture than what I’ve been able to uncover to date, and the information contained in this post comes from that report:

“Under the pretext of addressing environmental degredation, climate change and the energy and food crisis, and using the rhetoric of the “new” bioeconomy  (“sustainability”, “green economy”, “clean tech”, “clean development”) industry is talking about  solving these problems by substituting fossil carbon for that of living matter.    The term “bioeconomy” is based on the notion that biological systems and resources can be harnessed to maintain current industrial systems of production, consumption and capital accumulation.” 

Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (i.e. fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) – and therefore a “clean” form of development –  this emerging bioeconomy is in fact, according to ETC,  “a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South” (because 86% of that biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics).

What does a new bioeconomy look like?  According to the ETC:   “as the DNA found in living cells is decoded into genetic information for use in biotechnology applications, genetic sequences  acquire a new value as the building blocks of designed biological production systems. By hijacking the ‘genetic instructions’ of cells … to force them to produce industrial products, industry transforms synthetic organisms into bio-factories that can be deployed elsewhere on the globe – either in private vats or plantations.  Nature is altered to meet business interests.”

They go on to say that as ecosystems collapse and biodiversity declines, new markets in ecosystem “services” will enable the trading of ecological ‘credits.’   The declared aim is to “incentivize conservation” by creating a profit motive in order to justify interventions in large-scale natural systems such as hydrological cycles, the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle.[1] Like the ‘services’ of an industrial production system, these ‘ecosystem services,’ created to privatize natural processes, will become progressively more effective at serving the interests of business.

It seems to be all about profit.

The ETC report states that concerted attempts are already underway by many industrial players to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more.

The visible players involved in commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated in the global economy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, DuPont, BASF, Syngenta and Weyerhaeuser.   Enabling this attempt is the adoption of synthetic biology techniques (extreme genetic engineering) by these well-funded companies.

“We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

– J. Craig Venter, founder Synthetic Genomics, Inc.[2]

There is lots more in the ETC report, here’s just a summary of some other issues:

  • The report examines the next generation biofuels, including algal biofuels and synthetic hydrocarbons, and establishes the case for why this generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first.  Even leading companies and scientists involved in synthetic biology agree that some oversight is necessary – currently it’s being mostly ignored and is not on the agenda for the Rio+20 summit to be held in Brazil in June.
  • Today’s synthetic biology is unpredictable, untested and poorly understood.  Could open a Pandora’s box of consequences.  See:  http://www.cbd.int/doc/emerging-issues/foe-synthetic-biology-for-biofuels-2011-013-en.pdf
  • The “green” credentials of current bio-based plastics and chemicals are called into question.  (See our posts on biopolymers – click here and here).
  • How much biomass is enough?  “Attempting to set an ‘acceptable level’ of biomass extraction is as inappropriate as forcing a blood donation from a hemorrhaging patient. Already struggling to maintain life support, the planet simply does not have any biomass to spare. Human beings already capture on-fourth of land based biomass for food, heat and shelter; attempts to define a limit beyond which ecosystems lose resilience and begin to break down reveal that we consumed past such limits 20 years ago.”
  • Biomass is considered a “renewable resource” – and it is true that while plants may be renewable in a short period of time, the soils and ecosystem that they depend on may not be.  Industrial agriculture and forest biomass extraction rob soils of nutrients, organic matter, water and structure, decreasing fertility and leaving ecosystems more vulnerable or even prone to collapse. Associated use of industrial chemicals and poor land management can make things worse. In practice, therefore, biomass is often only truly renewable when extracted in such small amounts that they are not of interest to industry.
  • The claim that biomass technology will be a stepping stone to a new mix of energy sources misses the whole point – that we are facing a crisis of overproduction and consumption.  Reducing our overall energy demands is critical, as it boosting support for decentralized peasant agriculture.

[1] See for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity:

Ecological and Economic Foundations. Edited By Pushpam Kumar. An

output of TEEB: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity,

Earthscan Oct. 2010

[2] Michael Graham Richard, “Geneticist Craig Venter Wants to Create Fuel from CO2,” Treehugger, 29 February 2008. Available online at: http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/02/craig-venter-fuel-co2-tedconference.php





Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

From last week’s blog post, we discussed how bio based plastics do indeed save energy during the production of the polymers, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the process.  Yet right off the bat, it could be argued that carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement,  because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere!   Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1] Therefore, it is both ironic and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline. This in turn would greatly increase the competition for biological sources of food and fuel – with biopolymers coming in last place.[2]  But that’s probably really stretching the point.

The development of bioplastics holds the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea.  Although plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins,  their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem.  It’s important to remember that bioplastics, just like regular plastics, are synthetic polymers; it’s just that plants are being used instead of oil to obtain the carbon and hydrogen needed for polymerization.

It’s good marketing, but bad honesty, as they say, because there are so many types of plastics and bioplastics that you don’t know what you’re getting in to;  bioplastics are much more complicated than biofuels.  There are about two dozen different ways to create a bioplastic, and each one has different properties and capabilities.

Actually the term “bioplastic” is pretty meaningless, because some bioplastics are actually made from oil – they’re called “bioplastics” because they are biodegradeable.  That causes much confusion because plastics made from oil can be biodegradeable whereas some plant-based  bioplastics are not. So the term bioplastics can refer either to the raw material (biomass) or, in the case of oil-based plastic, to its biodegradability.  The problem with biodegradability and compostability is that there is no agreement as to what that actually means either,  and under what circumstances

You might also see the term “oxo-degradable”.   Oxo-degradables look like plastic, but they are not. It is true that the material falls apart, but that is because it contains metal salts which cause it to disintegrate rapidly into tiny particles. Then you cannot see it anymore, but it is still there, in the ocean too. Just as with conventional plastics, these oxo-degradables release harmful substances when they are broken down.

Let’s re-visit  some of the reasons bioplastics are supposed to be an environmental benefit:

  • Because it’s made from plants, which are organic, they’re good for the planet.  Polymer bonds can be created from oil, gas or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be organic or more environmentally friendly. You could make non-biodegradable, toxic plastic out of organic corn!
  • Bioplastics are biodegradable. Although made from materials that can biodegrade, the way that material is turned into plastic  makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the materials to naturally break down.  There are bioplastics made from vegetable matter (maize or grass, for example) which are no more biodegradable than any other plastics, says Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research.[3]  Bioplastics do not universally biodegrade in normal conditions  –  some require special, rare conditions to decompose, such as high heat composting facilities, while others may simply take decades or longer to break down again, mitigating the supposed benefits of using so-called compostable plastics material. There are no independent standards for what even constitutes “biodegradable plastic.”  Sorona makes no claim to break down in the environment; Ingeo is called “compostable” (though it can only be done in industrial high heat composters). Close studies of so-called degradable plastics have shown that some only break down to plastic particles which are so small they can’t be seen  (“out of sight, out of mind”), which are more easily ingested by animals. Indeed, small plastic fragments of this type may also be better able to attract and concentrate pollutants such as DDT and PCB.[4]
  • Bioplastics are recyclable. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there’s no way to make sure you’re getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat – so although some bioplastics are recyclable, the recycling facilities won’t separate them out.  Cargill Natureworks insists that PLA  can in theory be recycled, but in reality it is likely to be confused with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  In October 2004, a group of recyclers and recycling advocates issued a joint call for Natureworks to stop selling PLA for bottle applications until the recycling questions were addressed.[5]  But the company claims that levels of PLA in the recycling stream are too low to be considered a contaminant.  The process of recycling bioplastics is cumbersome and expensive – they present a real problem for recyclers because they cannot be handled using conventional processes. Special equipment and facilities are often needed. Moreover, if bioplastics commingle with traditional plastics, they contaminate all of the other plastics, which forces waste management companies to reject batches of otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Bioplastics are non-toxicBecause they’re not made from toxic inputs (as are oil based plastics), bioplastics have the reputation for being non toxic.  But we’re beginning to see the same old toxic chemicals produced from a different (plant-based) source of carbon. Example:  Solvay’s bio-based PVC uses phthalates,  requires chlorine during production, and produces dioxins during manufacture, recycling and disposal. As one research group commissioned by the European Bioplastics Association was forced to admit, with regard to PVC,  “The use of bio-based ethylene is …  unlikely to reduce the environmental impact of PVC with respect to its toxicity potential.[6]

The arguments against supporting bioplastics include the fact that they are corporate owned, they compete with food, they bolster industrial agriculture and lead us deeper into genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.  I am not with those who think we shouldn’t go there, because we sorely need scientific inquiry  and eventually we might even get it right.  But, for example, today’s industrial agriculture is not, in my opinion, sustainable, and the genetic engineering we’re doing is market driven with no altruistic motive. 

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the potential to become a much-preferred alternative to conventional plastics. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC)[7] is a coalition of organizations that advances the introduction and use of biobased products. They seek to replace dependence on materials made from harmful fossil fuels with a new generation of materials made from plants – but the shift they propose is more than simply a change of materials.  They promote (according to their website): sustainability standards, practical tools, and effective policies to drive and shape the emerging markets for these products.  They also refer to “sustainable bioplastics” rather than simply “bioplastics”.  In order to be a better choice, these sustainable bioplastics must be:

  • Derived from non-food, non-GMO source materials – like algae rather than GMO corn, or from sustainably grown and harvested cropland or forests;
  • Safe for the environment during use;
  • Truly compostable and biodegradable;
  • Free of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and recycling process;
  • Manufactured without hazardous inputs and impacts (water, land and chemical use are considerations);
  • Recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle.

Currently, manufacturers are not responsible for the end-life of their products. Once an item leaves their factories, it’s no longer the company’s problem. Therefore, we don’t have a system by which adopters of these new bioplastics would be responsible for recovering, composting, recycling, or doing whatever needs to be done with them after use. Regarding toxicity, the same broken and ineffective regulatory system is in charge of approving bioplastics for food use, and there is no reason to assume that these won’t raise just as many health concerns as conventional plastics have. Yet again, it will be an uphill battle to ban those that turn out to be dangerous.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology traces the full impact of plastic production all the way back to its source for several types of plastics.[8]   Study author Amy Landis of the University of Pittsburgh says, “The main concern for us is that these plant-derived products have a green stamp on them just because they’re derived from biomass.  It’s not true that they should be considered sustainable. Just because they’re plants doesn’t mean they’re green.”

The researchers found that while making bioplastics requires less fossil fuel and has a lower impact on global warming, they have higher impacts for eutrophication, eco-toxicity and production of human carcinogens.  These impacts came largely from fertilizer use, pesticide use and conversion of lands to agricultural fields, along with processing the bio-feedstocks into plastics, the authors reported.

According to the study, polypropylene topped the team’s list as having the least life-cycle impact, while PVC and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were ranked as having the highest life-cycle impact.

But as the Plastic Pollution Coalition tells us, it’s not so much changing the material itself that needs changing – it’s our uses of the stuff itself.  We are the problem:   If we continue to buy single-use disposable objects such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, our throwaway culture will continue to harm the environment, no matter what it’s made of.

The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation has a list of ten easy things you can do to keep plastics out of our environment:

  1. Choose to reuse when it comes to  shopping bags and bottled water.  Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable  bottles are available locally at great prices.
  2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess  packaging, straws and other ‘disposable’ plastics.  Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out  restaurants.
  3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
  4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great  way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
  5. Go digital! No need for plastic cds,  dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
  6. Seek out alternatives to the plastic  items that you rely on.
  7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled      plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
  9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene  foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics!

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND  http://www.ciesin.org/docs/004-038/004-038a.html

[2] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007 AND L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011; http://resource.wur.nl/en/wetenschap/detail/what_we_dont_know_about_bioplastics

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at http://recyclablepackaging.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/bio-based-resin-report

[6] L. Shen, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio- Based Plastics,” PRO-BIP 2009, Final Report, June 2009





Bioplastics

9 04 2012

The first plastic garbage bag was invented by Harry Waslyk in 1950.

1950!  Mr. Waslyk could not have predicted how much havoc his plastic child would wreck in a mere 62 years.[1]

We’ve all seen the pictures of birds stomachs filled with plastic detritus and read about the Great Pacific Gyre, but I just read a new twist to that story:    the Emirates News Agency reported that decomposed remains of camels in the desert region of the United Arab Emirates revealed that 50% of the camels died from swallowing and choking on plastic bags.  “Rocks of calcified plastic weighing up to 60 kilograms are found in camel stomachs every day,” said Dr. Ulrich Wernery, Scientific Director, Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, whose clinic conducts hundreds of post-mortems on camels, gazelles, sheep and cows in the UAE.  He adds that one in two camels die from plastic.[2]

Plastic has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that plastics are among the debris orbiting our planet. Unfortunately, our wildlife and domestic animals are paying the price now; I think we ourselves will see changes in future generations.

It’s no wonder we’re scrambling to find alternatives to plastic, and one hot topic in the research area is that of bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made (usually) from plant materials.  Enzymes are used to break starch in the plant into glucose, which is fermented and made into lactic acid.  This lactic acid is polymerized and converted into a plastic called polylactic acid (PLA), which can be used in the manufacture of products  ( PLA is about 20% more expensive than petroleum-based plastic)  or into a plastic  called polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA (PHA biodegrades more easily but is more than double the price of regular plastic).

The bioplastic market is expanding rapidly and by 2030, according to some estimates, could account for 10% of the total plastics market.   In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted are Ingeo and Sorona, both PLA based fibers with a growing share of the fabric market; and soy-based foam for upholstery.    Toray Industries has announced that they will have the first functional performance nylon and polyester textiles based on biomass ready for the 2013/14 season.  They are 100% bio-based fabrics [3] based on the castor plant, which is very robust, growing in dry farming areas and requiring significantly fewer pesticides and herbicides than other crops.

So it’s no wonder that there has been much discussion about bioplastics, and about whether there are ecological advantages to using biomass instead of oil.

The arguments in favor of bioplastics are:

  • They are good for the environment because there is no harm done to the earth when recovering fossil fuels. Also, in this process there are very few greenhouse gas and harmful carbon emissions. Regular plastics need oil for their manufacturing, which pollutes the environment.
  • They require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics.
  • They are recyclable.
  • They are non toxic.
  • They reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  • They are made from renewable resources.

These arguments sound pretty good – until you begin to dig  and find out that once again, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Regarding the first two arguments (they are good for the environment because they produce significantly fewer CO2 emissions and less energy) -  there have not been many studies which support  this argument until recently.  Recently,  several  studies have been published which seems to support that  this is indeed the case:

  1. Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University found that “the results for the use of fossil energy resources and GHG emissions are more favorable for most bio based polymers than for oil based. As an exception, landfilling of biodegradable polymers can result in methane emissions (unless landfill gas is captured) which may make the system unattractive in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[4]
  2. University of Pittsburgh researchers did an LCA on the environmental impacts of both petroleum and bio derived plastics, assessing them using metrics which included  economy, mass from renewable sources, biodegradability, percent recycled, distance of furthest feedstock, price, life cycle health hazards and life cycle energy use. They found that  biopolymers are the more eco-friendly material in terms of energy use and emissions created.  However, they also concluded that traditional plastics can actually be less environmentally taxing to produce when taking into account such things as acidification, carcinogens, ecotoxicity, eutrophication, global warming, smog, fossil fuel depletion, and ozone depletion.[5]
  3. A study done by the nova-Institut GmbH on behalf of Proganic GmbH & Co.[6]showed unambiguously positive eco advantages (in terms of energy use and CO2 emissions) for bio based polymers PLA and PHA/PHB over petrochemical based plastics.  According to the report, “the emission of greenhouse gases and also the use of fossil raw materials are definitely diminished. Therefore the substitution of petrochemical plastics with bio-based plastics yields positive impacts in the categories of climate change and depletion of fossil resources.”  The results include:
    1. Greenhouse gas emissions of bio-based plastics amount to less than 3 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic, less than that of petrochemical based plastics which produce an average of 6 KG of CO2 equivalents per KG of plastic..
    2. the production of bio-based polymers, in comparison to all petrochemical plastics examined, leads to savings in fossil resources. The biggest savings potential can be found in comparison with polycarbonate (PC). The average savings potential in the production of PLA amounts to 56 ± 13 megajoules per kilogram of plastics here.
    3. The production of bio-based polymers in comparison with the production of petrochemical plastics in most cases also leads to greenhouse gas emission savings. The biggest greenhouse gas emission savings can be found again when comparing bio-based polymers to polycarbonate (PC). For PLA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 4.7 ± 1.5 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. For PHA, the average savings potential in this case amounts to 5.8 ± 2.7 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics. In comparison with PET and Polystyrene (PS), considerable savings potentials ranging between 2.5 and 4.2 kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of plastics are to be found in the production of bio-based polymers. The lowest savings potential are to be found when comparing bio-based polymers with polypropylene (PP).

So I will accept the arguments that biobased plastics produce fewer  greenhouse gases and harmful carbon emissions and require less energy to produce than petroleum-based plastics .  They also certainly reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But are they better for the environment?  Are they recyclable or biodegradeable?  Are they safe?  Are plastics producers aware of the impact of promoting bioplastics as a replacement for plastics? We think that  bioplastics are useful for certain purposes, such as medical sutures or strewing foil for mulching in agriculture – but as a replacement for all plastics?

Next week we’ll take a look at the arguments against bioplastics.


[1] Laylin, Tafline, “Half of UAE’s Falaj Mualla Camels Choked on Plastic Bags”, Green Prophet blog, June 11, 2010.

http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/06/camels-choke-on-plastic/

[2] Ibid.

[4] Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824

[5] Tabone, Michaelangelo D., et al; “Sustainability Metrics: Life Cycle Assessment and Green Design in Polymers”, Enviornmental Science and Technology, September 2, 2010.





Biopolymers and polylactic acid (PLA) – or rather, Ingeo

27 04 2011

Synthetic polymers have experienced almost exponential growth since 1950, and today about 5% of world oil production is used for that purpose.  In fact, we will need 25% or more of the current oil production for making polymers by the end of this century.

Some synthetic polymers are used to make fibers, and they have been around for a while:  rayon was discovered in 1924 and nylon in 1939.  But synthetic use really began to take off only since about 1953,  when polyester was discovered.  Qualities like durability and water resistance make synthetics highly desirable in many applications.  Today synthetics account for about half of all fiber usage.

This, despite the fact that synthetics are made from fossil fuel, and the contaminants from the manufacturing leach into our waterways and pollute the atmosphere, and the fact that they are not biodegradable and therefore don’t break down in landfills.  So recently there has been a spotlight on bio-plastics.

Bio plastics, or biopolymers -  in other words, synthetic plastics produced from biological sources -  are derived from cellulose. Cellulose is abundant – it’s said to make up half of all the organic carbon on the planet.   The most often-used biopolymers  include:

  • natural rubber (in use since the mid-1700s),
  • cellulosics (invented in the late-1800s),
  • and nylon 11 (polyamide – or PA 11) and 6–10 (polyamide 6/10) (mid-1900s).

A recent addition to the list is polylactic acid (PLA).  PLA is made from corn starch (in the United States), tapioca products (roots, chips or starch, mostly in Asia) or sugar cane (the rest of the world).[1]  You’ve probably heard about polylactic acid (PLA),  because Cargill, one of the largest agricultural firms on Earth, has invested heavily in it.  Cargill’s wholly owned subsidiary, NatureWorks, is the primary producer of PLA in the United States.  The brand name for NatureWorks PLA is Ingeo, which is made into a whole array of products, including fabrics.

The producers of PLA have touted the eco friendliness of PLA based on:

  1. the fact that it is made from annually renewable resources ,
  2.  that it will biodegrade in the environment all the way to carbon dioxide and water  -  at least in principle, and
  3. they also cite PLA’s lower carbon footprint.

Let’s take a look at these three claims.

Plant based biopolymers do come from renewable resources, but the feedstock used presents some interesting problems.  In the United States, corn is used to make the PLA. In the US, corn-based biopolymer producers have to compete with ethanol producers of government mandated gasoline blends, raising the cost and limiting availability for both. This problem will become worse in the future as the law requires a doubling of the percentage of ethanol used in motor fuel. Nearly a third of the US corn crop previously used for food was used to replace 5% of gasoline consumption in 2008.[2]

In a world where many people are starving, many say that it seems almost criminal to grow food crops, such as corn, to turn it into cloth. Agricultural lands are often cleared to make way for the growing of crops for the production of polymers. This leads to a continuous shrinking of the food producing lands of the world.  Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, says, “already we’re converting 12% of the US grain harvest to ethanol (anticipated to rise to 23% by 2014). How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood uses?”[3]

In addition, most of the corn used by NatureWorks to make PLA is genetically modified, which raises serious ethical issues.

Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers.

PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in 90 days or less.  What’s that?  Not exactly your backyard compost heap!  It’s an industrial facility where microbes work at 140 degrees or more for 10 consecutive days.  In reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities needed to degrade PLA.  NatureWorks has identified 113 nationwide – some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations .  Moreover, PLA in quantity can interfere with municipal compost operations because it breaks down into lactic acid, which makes the compost wetter and more acidic.

It looks like most PLA will end up in landfills, where there is no evidence it will break down any faster than PET.  Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped into a landfill will last as long as a PET bottle.[4]

In fact, manufacturers have changed their stance: PLA is now defined as “compostable” instead of biodegradable, meaning more heat and moisture is needed to degrade PLA than is found in your typical backyard compost bin.

So far, biopolymer producers have had problems demonstrating that their materials have smaller carbon footprints than fossil fuel-derived polymers.   The energy inefficiencies of planting, growing, and transporting biological feedstocks mean more total energy is likely consumed to produce a unit of biopolymer than to make a unit of an oil or gas-based polymer.

However, Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University  found that “the results for the use of fossil energy resources and GHG emissions are more favorable for most bio based polymers than for oil based. As an exception, landfilling of biodegradable polymers can result in methane emissions (unless landfill gas is captured) which may make the system unattractive in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[5]

Dr. Narayan recommended that, relative to their conventional counterparts, green polymers  should:

  • save at least 20 MJ (non-renewable) energy per kg of polymer,
  • avoid at least 1 kg CO2 per kg polymer and
  • reduce most other environmental impacts by at least 20%.

From this point of view, he says,  green plastics  can be defined in a broad and target-oriented manner.

But  carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement, because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere. Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels. Therefore, it is both ironic  and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline.  This in turn would greatly increase the  competition for biological sources of food and fuel –  with biopolymers coming in last place.[6]

A further problem with biopolymers (except for future PE/PP made from sugar cane) is that  they require additional sorting at commercial recycling centers to avoid contaminating other material streams, and, although segregated collection helps, it is complex and increases costs.

In the final analysis, newer biopolymers don’t yet perform as well as oil based polymers, especially in terms of lower heat and moisture resistance, so the user might feel green but gets results that are less sustainable and more limited in use.  PLA remains a boutique polymer, and some see the best value proposition for biopolymers to be where their use is based on their unique properties, such as in medical and dental implants, sutures, timed released chemotherapy, etc. , because  PLA will slowly come apart in the body over time, so it can serve as a kind of scaffold for bone or tissue regrowth or for metered drug release.  But this is a small and specialized market.

But still, the potential and need for plastic alternatives has become acute:  The SPI Bioplastic Council anticipates that the biopolymer market will exceed $1 billion by 2012 – today it is half that.   Bioplastic remains “a sector that is not yet mature but will be growing fast in the coming years,” says Frederic Scheer , CEO of Cereplast and the so-called ‘Godfather of Bioplastics.’  It has not matured because of high production costs and the restricted capacity of biomass-based polymers.

But  according to The ETC Group, there are already concerted efforts, using biotechnology,  to shift global industrial production from a dependence on fossil fuels to biomass – not only for plastics but also for power, chemicals, and more.  It sounds good – until you read their report, which I’ll cover next week.


[2] Jones, Roger, “Economics, Sustainability, and the Public Perception of Biopolymers”, Society of Plastics Engineers, http://www.4spepro.org/pdf/000060/000060.pdf

[3] Royte, Elizabeth, “Corn Plastic to the Rescue”, Smithsonian,  August 2006

[4] Ibid.

[5] Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824

[6] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts

of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007  AND

L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields:

some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.





Biodegradeable or compostable?

1 12 2010

There is no legal definition of “biodegradable,” so the term has been used loosely by some manufacturers.  The American Society for Testing and Materials defines the term as “a degradation caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material.”

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) cites a 2006 American Chemistry Council study showing that most consumers believe a product labeled “biodegradable” will go away completely and on its own in a year or less. The BPI says many consumers also believe that these products will “biodegrade” in landfills.

Because it seems a desirable product attribute, the term “biodegradable” has been applied to a wide range of products—even those that might take centuries to decompose, or those that break down into harmful environmental toxins.   Biodegradability is definitely perceived as  a positive trait, yet it could be applied to virtually anything because anything is biodegradable, given enough time.  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S., however, has issued some general guidelines on what types of products qualify as legitimately biodegradable, and has even sued companies for unsubstantiated, misleading and/or deceptive use of the term on product labels.

According to the FTC, only products that contain materials that “break down and decompose into elements found in nature within a reasonably short amount of time after customary disposal” should be marketed as “biodegradable.”

But the FTC acknowledges that even products appropriately labeled as biodegradable may not break down easily if they are buried under a landfill or are otherwise not exposed to sunlight, air and moisture, the key agents of biodegradation. In fact, in landfills materials degrade very, very slowly – if at all!  This is because modern landfills are designed, according to law, to keep out sunlight, air and moisture – the very ingredients needed for materials to biodegrade. This helps prevent pollutants from the garbage from getting into the air and drinking water, and slows the decomposition of the trash. In Dr. William Rathje’s book entitled “Rubbish,” he sites that “The truth is, however, that the dynamics of a modern landfill are very nearly the opposite of what most people think…Well designed and managed landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters: rather they are vast mummifiers.” In his book, Dr. Rathje talks about doing excavations on 15 landfills throughout North America. From those digs, they found 40 year old newspapers that were still legible, 5 year old lettuce and a 15 year old hot dog. From these studies it seems fairly clear that even organic materials take a very long time to break down in landfills let alone plastic or other items.  The reality is if any product ends up in a landfill, it will not degrade.

But the fact that a product breaks down – if it does indeed break down – may not be as important as what the product breaks down into. In a perfect would all products would break down to CO2 and H2O. But it gets more complicated as we increase the number and kinds of chemicals. The banned pesticide DDT is hazardous and toxic in its own right. And it does biodegrade, though rather slowly. The problem is that its breakdown products of DDD and DDE are even more toxic and dangerous than the original DDT.
So just because a product or ingredient is biodegradable does not mean it is healthy or safe for people or the environment – especially if it leaches harmful chemicals into the ecosystem. Under this definition, even regular oil based plastic can be advertised as “biodegradable” because at some point, sooner or later, it is going to break down into small pieces.

“Compostable”, on the other hand, has a definition that is rigorously governed by the standards ASTM D-6400, ASTM D6868, and EN13432.   The term “compostable” covers four areas:

1.      Biodegradable – i.e.,  60 – 90% of the product will break down into CO2 within 180 days in a commercial composting facility.

2.      Disintegration – this requires that 90% of the product will break down into pieces that are 2mm or smaller

3.      Eco-toxicity – the product will not deposit heavy metals that are toxic to the soil beyond that found in typical compost.

4.      Compostable products have the added implication that when they break down they turn into humus, which provides valuable nutrients to the soil.

So, while some products are considered biodegradable, they may not be considered compostable because they either don’t meet the heavy metal requirements,  don’t break down in a timely fashion or don’t contribute valuable nutrients which improves the soil.

Composting of organic waste makes sense, but compostable plastic for shopping bags, food packaging, fabric, etc. does not, because:

1.      It is up to 400% more expensive than ordinary plastic;

2.      it is thicker and heavier and requires more trucks to transport it;

3.      recycling with oil-based plastics is impossible;

4.      it uses scarce land and water resources to produce the raw material, and substantial amounts of non-renewable hydro-carbons are burned and CO2 emitted, by the tractors and other machines employed.

5.      If buried in landfill, compostable plastic can emit methane (a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than CO2) in anaerobic conditions.

Many industrial composters of organic waste around the world do not want plastic of any kind in their feedstock, because it is difficult to separate biodegradable plastic from ordinary plastic. Home composting of plastic is not encouraged, as it will often be contaminated with food residues, and temperatures may not rise high enough to kill the pathogens. Compostable plastic is useless in compost because 90% of it has to convert to CO2 gas in order to comply with ASTM D6400 and the other composting Standards. It therefore contributes to greenhouse gases but not to the improvement of the soil.

Meanwhile, you can follow Dave, who  buried an advertised Paper Mate  biodegradable pencil in his backyard last summer and says he will report on it’s degradation over time.  Click here to read more and follow the story!

So how does this apply to fabrics?  Well, for starters the companies that make PLA (polylactic acid) based polymers – those corn based bio plastics – advertise that their products are biodegradable.   PLA is said by the manufacturer  to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? It’s not exactly your average backyard bin, pit or tumbling barrel. It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks (the largest manufacturer of PLA, owned by Cargill Dow)  has identified only  113 such facilities nationwide.

Moreover, PLA by the truckload may potentially pose a problem for some large-scale composters.  And there is no evidence that  PLA breaks down any faster than PET or other plastics in a normal landfill environment.  (Read more about PLA and biodegradability here.)

And unless the chemicals used during processing of your fabric are such that there are no chemicals which would combine with other chemicals to form molecules of anything other than water, carbon dioxide and safe organic material – then it cannot be called compostable.  If the chemicals used during processing contain, for example, heavy metals in the dyestuffs – then those metals become available to your plants in the garden – and that again knocks it out of the “compostable” set of products.  That might be o.k. if you’re growing roses rather than radishes, but if you plan to eat those plants I’d look elsewhere as a way to dispose of your fabric.  Certified fabrics  made of natural fibers which look at the chemical inputs of processing (such as GOTS and Oeko Tex) would be o.k. for use in a vegetable garden – because they have been tested to be free of toxic inputs – and they could be called “compostable”.

Resources:

The Biodegradable Products Institute, www.bpiworld.org

US Composting Council  http://www.compostingcouncil.org








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