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The greening of plastics

Photonics Spectra
Oct 2009
Anne L. Fischer, Senior Editor,

Plastics have changed the way we live, making possible such items as disposable diapers and lightweight, inexpensive camera lenses. But plastics also can do harm to the environment, especially when their toxic chemicals work their way into the ground, the oceans, the air or our food.

Now new biologically derived materials, called biopolymers, hold the promise of plastics, but without the deleterious effects.

Lux Research of Boston recently released a report titled “Growing Tomorrow’s Green Materials,” which looks at the role of biopolymers in the marketplace. Included is the work being conducted on green materials by a number of giant chemical manufacturers.

For example, BASF of Ludwigshafen, Germany, is working on plant biotechnology, optimizing crops for raw materials. It also is looking at producing polymers through fermentation and biocatalysis – an important subspecialty of white biotechnology – for industrial use.

Bayer MaterialSciences is exploring ways of developing plant-based feedstock for polycarbonates and polyurethanes. Archer Daniels Midland Co. of Decatur, Ill., formed a joint venture with Metabolix Inc., a biosciences company in Cambridge, Mass., to develop microbes that create polymers from plant sugars. And Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Chemical is developing a biodegradable polyester.

The report points to these developments as evidence of corporations embracing the need for ecological materials and the move away from “petropolymers.”


Conventional polymers are a problem from start to finish, from the scarcity and cost of the fossil fuels with which they are made right through to disposal. Chart courtesy of Lux Research.

Although several variations of biopolymers are emerging from the lab and entering the market, questions remain as to how they will fare in certain applications, what they will cost and how green they really are. The report provides detailed analysis of green polymers, such as polylactic acid, in a variety of applications and compares them with petroleum-based materials such as ethylene vinyl acetate, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene polyester and others.

Each material was evaluated using chemical, industrial and economic data together with interviews with materials manufacturers. Data on performance included temperature tolerance, physical strength, crystallinity and hardness. Also evaluated were economic competitiveness and ecological profiles. With dozens of properties that may be relevant to particular applications, it’s not possible, however, to specify which alternative will succeed in which application.

Mark Bunger, research director and lead author of the report, noted that, for biopolymers to not be relegated to “tree-hugging consumers willing to pay a premium,” manufacturers must ensure that the biomaterials perform equally well or better than the alternatives, that their price is competitive and that they are environmentally sound.

The report concluded that widespread adoption will occur when conventional chemicals can be produced economically from biological materials. In the meantime, research and development must continue in an attempt to scale up the performance and scale down the cost of green plastics.

A tough, durable, heat- and cold-resistant optical quality plastic used in injection-molded items such as streetlight lenses, automotive taillights and audio compact discs.
ABSacrylonitride butadiene styreneAnne M. FischerArcher Daniels MidlandBASFBayer Material Sciencebiocatalystbiodegradable polyesterbiologicalBiophotonicsBiopolymerbiosciencebiotechnologycameraschemicalchemicalscrystallinitydiapersecologicalenvironmentethylene vinyl acetatefermentationgreen materialGreenLightindustrialLux ResearchMark BungerMetabolixmicrobesMitsubishi ChemicalpetropolymerPLAplant sugarplasticpolycarbonatepolylactic acidpolyurethanetree huggingwhite biotechnology

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