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From surfboards to food packaging: bioplastics are expanding

07 julio 2017

bioplastics are expanding

The expansion of bioplastics is unstoppable. So far they just represent about one percent of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide annually. .

The expansion of bioplastics is unstoppable. So far they just represent about one percent of the 300 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide annually. But as quality improves, the bioplastics market is already growing about 20% per year, according to European Bioplastics, an association of related companies based in Berlin, Germany.

The concept –both known as biopolymers or bioplastics– involves a whole family of new materials which are either biobased, biodegradable, or both. The benefits are obvious: getting plastics from biomass means counting on renewable sources and therefore saving fossil resources, and biodegradation offers additional means of recovery at the end of a product's life. It still might be somehow hard to imagine yoghourt containers, dishes or tube-shaped biodegradable packaging for cosmetics obtained from plants, but they are here already. There is no doubt: bioplastics are the greener evolution of plastics.

Renewable sources

Biobased plastics are derived from biomass, that is, from vegetable sources such as corn starch, sugar cane, cellulose or castor oil plant. Some innovations are also based in animal produce, such as milk whey, a by-product from the cheese industry, in a great example of circular economy that would allow making a profit from an abundant surplus that has been treated as waste until now. A new European project is also studying the potential of bird feathers from farms and slaughterhouses.

The obtainment process varies from source to source. In the case of corn, for example, the plant itself produces dextrose (sugar) during photosynthesis and stores it in form of starch. A series of microorganisms transforme it in lactic acid that, after a process, result in lactide rings. These rings, subject to polymerization, will result in pellets of bioplastics.

Diversity of applications

The application range of bioplastics is growing quickly. Some marketable products so far are resins to produce skis, snowboards or surfboards. The sports sector has proved to be a good test bed for these materials. The high performance of bioplastics is taking them to be implemented in other sectors such as the automotive and construction, and also household appliances, electronics, pet toys or gloves and shopping bags for supermarkets.

Some other recent developments in biopolymers include a new generation of fire resistant panels for trucks and buses with materials manufactured from by-products from the cellulose paste in the paper industry. This bioplastics meets the mechanical and fire resistance requirements set by the transport sector, and it is fully biodegradable and compostable. Agriculture is another important application sector, with the creation of greenhouse film, tutoring cords for plants and flowerpots.

Food packaging, the challenge of heat resistance

The use of biopolymers has greatly developed in the food packaging sector, as shown in an international bioplastics event recently held in Valencia and organized by AIMPLAS. Heat-resistant packages for ready-to-eat food or packages for fresh food with a high barrier to extend their shelf life are already a reality in biobased plastics. From teaspoons and cups to chocolate packaging or coffee capsules, the uses of these new materials seem to have no limits, even more considering that they have already overcome the challenge of heat resistance, therefore allowing sterilisation and pasteurization.

Credits:

- Bioplastics food packaging by NZZ
- Bio-based shopping bag made from sugarcane by Braskem
- Forks made from bioplastics by Novamont
- Bio-Keyboard by Fujitsu
- Biodegradable plastic utensils
- Dice from cellulose bioplastics

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