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). 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:
- the fact that it is made from annually renewable resources ,
- that it will biodegrade in the environment all the way to carbon dioxide and water – at least in principle, and
- 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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
 Royte, Elizabeth, “Corn Plastic to the Rescue”, Smithsonian, August 2006
 Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824
 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.