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I recently attended a webinar hosted by VTT about bio-based plastics. Traditionally, plastics has been manufactured by using crude oil as raw material. Researchers have now patented a number of bio-based polymers with all the same qualities as oil-based plastic polymers and to some extent, even better qualities. Bio-based plastic is projected to reach up to 20 percent of all markets by 2025 so this is a huge business right now!
There are big advantages to making the plastic out of bio-waste compared to oil:
1) Non-edible bio-waste such as citrus fruit peel and sugar beet pulp can be used. A polymer called furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) has been developed and it can be used to make a material called PEF, highly resembling PET which is the material used in drinking bottles for example. Not so surprisingly - Coca Cola company holds many of the FDCA patents today!
2) The carbon footprint of FDCA is lower than that of oil.
3) Bio-based plastics is independent from oil markets and have low production costs.
The bio-based plastics can also be recycled using the same technology as traditional PET-plastics. However, as I see it there is one big problem to be solved - the plastification of our environment. These new biomaterials are not biodegradable, meaning that unless we do something very drastic, the new material is going to end up in our oceans just like the oil-based plastic. There are of course other, 100 percent biodegradable biopolymers that are used instead of plastics that are also an emerging business, but up to date is it a question of biodegradability versus durability.
Japanese researchers have recently found species of bacteria that can use PET plastics as their major energy and carbon source. With the alarming new findings of microplastic in a number of marine organisms, plastic mineralization technology is urgently needed. Will bacteria come to our rescue once again?
The contributors to this blog are the marine biologists Maria Koivisto (left) and Anu Riihimäki (right).