Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779

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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.