This Is Plastics: Bioplastics: Turning Plants into Plastics


Bioplastics: Turning Plants into Plastics

Researchers continue to improve how we transform plant waste into plastics. These bioplastics complement plastics made from other sources and give consumers more options.


Researchers continue to improve how we transform plant waste into plastics. These bioplastics complement plastics made from other sources and give consumers more options.

For decades, researchers have experimented with plants and plant waste to develop sustainable materials called bioplastics. New breakthrough research from the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, is poised to make bioplastics even more accessible for packaging, healthcare and consumer product industries, advancing sustainable innovation across the economy.  

What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics” are plastics that are biobased, meaning they’re made from a renewable source and/or are biodegradable, giving them the ability to break down on their own.  Generally, bioplastics are created through a chemical reaction that converts the sugar from plants or other organic materials into the base chemical compounds of plastics. The two most common bioplastics are PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), which is derived from sugars in algae, and PLA (polylactic acid), which is made from sugar found in crops like corn and sugarcane. Bioplastics can be used on their own or mixed with petroleum-based plastics to create everyday items such as cutlery, bottles or food packaging.

In a recent discovery, researchers from the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, were able to convert up to 25 percent of the weight of agricultural waste into a bioplastic that has the elasticity and durability of conventional plastic and is capable of breaking down naturally over time. They used inexpensive glyoxylic acid instead of formaldehyde to essentially “cook down” wood and other non-edible plant material to create a chemical reaction. While bioplastics have been studied for centuries, Jeremy Luterbacher, the primary researcher in this recent study, emphasizes that this new bioplastic is unique because it keeps the molecular sugar structure intact, allowing for a simpler process without changing “what nature gives you.” The researchers have used the new, strong bioplastic to create fibers that can be turned into textiles, filaments for 3D printing and even packaging film. This innovation has the potential to expand the use of bioplastics across all fields. 

Bioplastics have growing applications across the U.S. economy

This recent scientific discovery will help expand the use of bioplastics for food packaging, medical products, consumer goods and more. In the food industry, this newly discovered bioplastic is slightly different than past applications and has properties similar to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a plastic polymer that is regularly used in food packaging, plastic films and other applications. Because the bioplastic had similarly low oxygen transmission rates as PET, it could be an even better solution to ensure food stays fresh from grocery store shelves to home kitchens. Like PET, bioplastics are also non-toxic, making them a consistently safe choice for food storage and preservation.

Bioplastics are also increasingly being used in the medical field to produce common single-use plastics such as syringes, gloves, cups and trays. Additionally, bioplastics are often used to make medical implants, sutures and orthopedic devices. Because they are derived from organic material, they are compatible with the human body and break down easily over time, helping the healing process without further invasive procedures to remove sutures or devices when a patient has recovered. The new bioplastic discovery will further expand the use of bioplastics in the healthcare industry by making their production process easier and more affordable while ensuring medical products and devices remain safe for patient use.

Many consumer products and common household items also contain or are produced using bioplastics. Often, bioplastics are used to create electrical casing and circuit boards on electronic devices, which ensures the products are durable yet lightweight. Bioplastics are already being used by consumers in popular cellphone cases, such as Pela or Wave, or in shoes, such as Allbirds and Braskem’s SweetFoam flip-flops. By using bioplastics, consumer brands can maintain product quality while using a material that is resource-efficient and sustainable. Because this newly discovered bioplastic has several qualities in common with PET, it is an ideal candidate for producers looking for a sustainable plastic material in packaging for consumer products like cosmetics or household cleaners. As scientists discover new innovations in the bioplastic field, applications for bioplastics will continue to grow.

Bioplastics are a sustainable alternative to other materials

As with traditional plastics, bioplastics also provide a sustainable option for packaging and consumer products and outperform alternative materials like paper and glass. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) have consistently demonstrated that plastics are more environmentally friendly than alternative materials like paper, glass and aluminum, because they are more lightweight and more resource efficient during production and transportation. Analyses of bioplastics reaffirm these findings, and a recent study found that increasing the use of bioplastics in the plastics industry could further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent. With multiple end-of-life options—such as advanced recycling, traditional recycling and composting—bioplastics and petroleum-based plastics are more likely to have a lesser impact on the environment. Further, in landfills, bioplastics release organic substances such as water and biomass when breaking down, returning those nutrients back to the environment.

Plastics are ubiquitous in our daily lives. Investing in sustainable solutions like bioplastics can mitigate plastic waste and climate change concerns while providing an additional sustainable plastics option for the various industries for which they can serve as a resource. New bioplastics discoveries represent a step forward towards a more climate-conscious future, and innovations only bring us that much closer to making it a reality.

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