Clean Plastics

By | November 25, 2009

Dispatches from a rapidly changing, rapidly improving world

Special Dispatch
November 25, 2009

We’ll be running daily BATT’s all Thanksgiving week.

We’re seeing a lot of progress in biofuels development, which is good news for the environment, but what about progress with bioplastics? So glad you asked:

A team of pioneering South Korean scientists have succeeded in producing the
polymers used for everyday plastics through bioengineering, rather than
through the use of fossil fuel based chemicals.

Polymers are molecules found in everyday life in the form of plastics
and rubbers. The team, from the prestigious KAIST University and the Korean
chemical company LG Chem, led by Professor Sang Yup Lee focused their
research on Polylactic Acid (PLA), a bio-based polymer which holds the
key to producing plastics through natural and renewable resources.

“The polyesters and other polymers we use everyday are mostly derived from fossil oils made through the refinery or chemical process,” said Lee. “The idea of producing polymers from renewable biomass has attracted much attention due to the increasing concerns of environmental problems and the limited nature of fossil resources. PLA is considered a good alternative to petroleum based plastics as it is both biodegradable and has a low toxicity to humans.”

Cleaner production of plastic will make for a cleaner planet. Excellent.


Two potential issues, here:


1. Some approaches to biofuel have competed with, and interefered with, food production. We don’t want clean plastics at the cost of people starving.


2. I don’t read here that these plastics will break down any faster than the petroleum-based kind, which means that bioplastics will need to be recycled, same as the dirty kind.


The good news is that we have yet another way to clean up our act where materials production is concerned. That we know what pitfalls to avoid is even better news — as long as we do avoid them. 


Live to see it!

  • Stephen Gordon

    This is yet another example of how bio-fuels will allow countries – maybe without petroleum resources – to become self-sufficient.

    Relying less on a resource that comes almost exclusively from troubled regions of the world is a good thing.

  • Max

    There is a lot of confusion about plastic and which is compostable, biodegradable, and degradable. There are basically three plastics on the market that claim to be biodegradable; oxy-biodegradable which you mention in your article, PLA (A plant starch based plastic) which is mostly made from food crops, and EcoPure biodegradable plastic.
    Oxy-degradable doesn’t actually biodegrade, it degrades, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces until they are to small to see. The polymer is still there it’s just invisible to the human eye….that isn’t a good thing for our environment.
    PLA plastics are compostable, but only in a commercial composting facility. Commercial composting facilities are far and few between and that means most PLA plastics will end up in a landfill. PLA plastics won’t biodegrade in a landfill and once they arrive there, they will languish for a long time.
    EcoPure biodegradable plastic was developed by Bio-Tec Environmental, in Albuquerque, NM. EcoPure is an additive that will make all plastics biodegradable in all applications. ENSO Bottles of Phoenix, Arizona, just introduced the world’s first truly biodegradable plastic bottle using the EcoPure additive with traditional PET plastic. The ENSO bottle can be recycled, and will biodegrade in an anaerobic or aerobic microbial environment.
    Plastics are an important part of our lives and we need them. However, we also need plastics which are more environmentally friendly. We need plastics that aren’t harmful for us and future generations and biodegradable plastics are one solution toward improving our environment.


  • Khannea

    Plastic without coal or oil, excellent.

    But now I’d like to see fertillizer and clean water produced at low cost, from something else than oil or coal. And while we’re at it, pharmaceuticals. Emphasize – not more than 150% of current costs – especially the fertillizer and water. If you can do either, – you’ll get a nobel prize and you’ll save the world.