Bioplastics & Plastic Degradation

BioplasticsBioplastics are just plastics made from plants. Bioplastics may or may not be biodegradable, may or may not be toxic.

Plastic is the result of a complex  process called polymerization. The building blocks for this process are atoms of carbon and hydrogen. The strong polymer bonds do not easily degrade, which is why plastic is strong yet flexible, and does not corrode or biodegrade. 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 better. You could make non-biodegradable and toxic plastic out of organic corn!

There is a lot of chemistry and additives involved in making plastic, and the industry formulas are not transparent. Some bioplastics (not all), are biodegradable and/or compostable.  Currently there are not independent standards for what “biodegradable plastic” means, and some plastics that claim to be ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ may take many years to decompose or may require special high-heat composting facilities (which are uncommon).

Some of these “biodegradable plastics” decompose extremely slowly in regular conditions, and even more slowly in the ocean.  And even biodegradable plastics require the use of plasticizing chemicals, which may be toxic and harmful to the environment, or to human health.

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the  potential to become a much preferable alternative to conventional plastics. At a minimum, these bioplastics must be:

  • derived from non-food, non-GMO grain
  • compostable and biodegradable
  • free of toxins during the manufacturing and recycling process
  • manufactured in a sustainable way (water, land and chemical use are considerations)
  • recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle

Still, even with the advent of a new-generation bioplastic, manufacturing single-use disposable objects, such as bags and bottles may be preferable but ultimately may not be a sustainable solution.  With almost 7 billion people in the planet, a throwaway culture addicted to disposable plastics is likely to continue harming our environment, whether these are made out of oil, or of plants.

We  believe that rethinking our habits and our uses of plastic is as important as rethinking the material itself.

Studies

Accinelli, C. (2012). "Deterioration of bioplastic carrier bags in the environment and the assessment of a new recycling alternative." Chemosphere. 89(2), 136-143.

Allen, A.L., Mayer, J., (1994). "Simulated marine respirometry of biodegradable polymers." J. Polym. Environ. 2 (4), 237–244.

Andrady, A.L., (1994). "Assessment of environmental biodegradation of synthetic polymers: a review." J. Macromol. Sci. R. M. C 34 (1), 25–75.

Andrady, A.L., (1998). "Biodegradation of plastics." In: Pritchard, G. (Ed.), Plastics Additives. London, Chapman Hall.

Andrady, A.L., Pegram, J.E., (1989). "Outdoor weathering of selected polymeric materials under marine exposure conditions." Polym. Degrad. and Stab. 26, 333.

Andrady, A.L., Pegram, J.E., (1993). "Studies on enhanced degradable plastics: II. Weathering of enhanced photodegradable polyethylenes under marine and freshwater floating exposure." J. Environ. Degrad. 1 (2), 117–126.

Andrady, A.L., Song, Y., (1991). "Fouling of floating plastic debris under biscayne bay exposure conditions." Mar. Poll. Bull. 22 (12), 117–122.

Andrady, A.L., Pegram, J.E., Olson, T.M., (1992). "Research and Development of Two Marine-Degradable Biopolymers;" Technical Report A150452 David Taylor Research Center. US Department of the Navy.

Andrady, A.L., Pegram, J.E., Tropsha, Y., (1993). "Changes in carbonyl index and average molecular weight on embrittlement of enhanced-photodegradable polyethylenes." J. Environ. Polym. Degrad. 1 (3), 171–179.

Breslin, V.T., Boen, L.I., (1993). "Weathering of starch-polyethylene composite films in the marine environment." J. Appl. Polym. Sci. 48 (12), 2063–2079.

Doi, Y., Kanesawa, Y., Tanahashi, N., Kumagai, Y., (1992). "Biodegradation of microbial polyesters in the marine environment." Polym. degrad. stabil. 36 (2), 173–177.

Eubeler, J.P., Zok, S., Bernhard, M., Knepper, T.P., (2009). "Environmental biodegradation of synthetic polymers I. Test methodologies and procedures." Trend. Anal. Chem. 28 (9), 1057–1072.

Gonsalves, K.E., Patel, S.H., (2003). "Development of potentially degradable materials for marine applications. II. Polypropylene-starch blends." J. Appl. Polym. Sci. 43 (2), 405–415.

Leathers, T.D., Govind, N.S., Greene, R.V., (2004). "Biodegradation of Poly(3-hydroxybutyrate-co-3-hydroxyvalerate) by a Tropical Marine Bacterium, Pseudoalteromonas sp. NRRL B-30083." Journal of Polymers and the Environment 8, 119–124.

Mayer, J.M., Kaplan, D.L., (1996)."Biodegradation of polymer films in marine and soil environments" ACS Symposium Series 627ACS Symposium Series #627. R. M. Ottenbrite, S. J. Huang and K. Park: 159–170.

Poulicek, M., Jeuniaux, C., (1991). "Chitin biodegradation in marine environments: An experimental approach."  Biochem. Syst. Ecol. 19 (5), 385–394.

Roy, P.K., Hakkarainen, M., Varma, I.K., and Albertsson, A.-C. (2011).  "Degradable polyethylene: fantasy or reality."  Environmental Science and Technology 45.10: 4217-4227.

Sarasa J, Gracia J, Javierre C. (2009)."Study of the Biodisintegration of Bioplastic Material Waste." Bioresource Technology 100.15: 3764-3768.

Schlechter, Melvin. (2011). "Biodegradable Polymers." BBC Research. Report Code PLS025D.

Seki, H., Taga, N., (1963). "Microbiological studies on the decomposition of chitin in marine environment – I. Occurence of Chitinoclastic bacteria in the Neritic region." J. Oceanograph. Soc. Jpn. 19 (2), 101–108.

Sivan A. (2011). “New Perspectives in Plastic Biodegradation.” Current Opinion in Biotechnology 22. 3: 422-426.

Shah, A.A., Hasan, F., Hameed, A., Ahmed, S., (2008). "Biological degradation of plastics: a comprehensive review." Biotechnol. Adv. 26 (3), 246–265.

Smock, Doug. (2010). "Bioplastics: Technologies and Global Markets." BBC Research. Research Code PLS050A

 

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