Plant Based Plastics

Back to the Future:
Plastics Made from Plants Instead of Toxic Chemicals

Did you know that before the chemical revolution, our society was based on materials made from plants, such as corn, soy and sugar beets?  Plants, not oil, used to be the primary raw material used to produce chemicals, paints, construction materials, clothing, and other household materials.  In fact, the first plastic ever developed was a “plant based plastic,” a cotton-derived product designed to replace ivory.  Henry Ford was a proponent of plant based plastics and he developed a demonstration vehicle in 1941 whose seat covers, dashboard, wheel, and tires were made from plant based materials.  Unfortunately, this all changed when the chemical industry hijacked the plastics market and introduced low-cost toxic plastics made from oil.

A Positive Shift in the Marketplace

But in recent years, the market has changed dramatically, driven by both the rising price of oil and growing concerns about the health and environmental impacts of plastics.  Today, numerous manufacturers are beginning to use or develop plastics made out of renewable materials, such as corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, wheat, rice and sweet potatoes.  Plant based plastics (also called bioplastics or biobased plastics) can be produced using several different processes including starch conversion, microbial conversion and genetic modification of plants.

In the U.S., the primary company manufacturing bioplastics is NatureWorks, owned by Cargill.  They can produce 300 million pounds a year of a plastic called PLA, or poly lactic acid, that is made from corn grown in Nebraska and Iowa.  Starch from the corn is extracted and converted into dextrose (sugar) and then into lactic acid by fermentation. The lactic acid is further refined into pellets that can be made into different end-products.  Other companies manufacturing plant based plastics include Dupont, BASF, Eastman, Proctor & Gamble, and Cereplast.

Sales of NatureWorks’ plastics have taken off in the past year, with large manufacturers and retailers increasingly using them in their packaging and products.  Companies like Newman’s Own and Wal-Mart are using bioplastics in their packaging and products.  The end plastic products, indistinguishable from those derived from petrochemicals, are used to create food packaging, disposable cups and forks, water bottles, auto parts, carpeting, compact discs, bedding materials, and other consumer products.

In Europe, bioplastics are even more popular.  Consumption doubled between 2001 and 2003.  An Italian company called Novamont manufactures a plant based plastic called Mater-Bi that is used in many similar applications to PLA, including food packaging and disposable food service items.  Production is expanding across the globe where capacity for biobased plastics is around 800 million pounds, and is expected to top 1.3 billion pounds by 2008.

Plant Based Plastics – An Alternative to PVC, the Poison Plastic

Plant based plastics provide an alternative to conventional plastics, especially for polyvinyl chloride (PVC), that relies heavily on extremely toxic feedstocks and additives that have devastating impacts on our health and environment through their production, use and disposal.  Many of the chemicals used in PVC production are linked to cancer, birth defects, reproductive harm, and a host of other health problems.  In contrast, biobased plastics are generated using renewable materials by converting plants such as corn into plastic.  The production of bioplastics can help contribute to rural economic development, providing a steady income for farmers.  It also uses fewer fossil fuels compared to petrochemical plastics, even after accounting for the fuel needed to plant and harvest the corn or other feedstocks.

Biobased plastics are also compostable, leading to many environmental benefits.  These plastics won’t break down in regular landfills or in your backyard compost, but they can be effectively composted in a large-scale facility (though not in leaf composting operations), where it will degrade within 45 days.  Compare this with conventional plastics that can take over 100 years just to begin the degradation process.

Despite the Benefits, Significant Challenges Remain

Despite numerous environmental and health benefits of plant based plastics, significant environmental challenges need to be addressed including the impacts of industrial agricultural production, the use of harmful additives, and the impact on recycling infrastructure and markets.  Conventional corn production uses significant amounts of toxic pesticides that can adversely impact groundwater and surface water, leads to soil erosion, and impacts soil production and wildlife habitats.  In addition, much of the corn made into NatureWorks’ plastic is genetically modified.  Many environmental organizations are working to address the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in NatureWorks’ feedstock.

One concern raised by recyclers is the impact that bioplastics have on the recycling of conventional plastics.  Biobased plastics, such as PLA, cannot be mixed with conventional plastic such as PET because the materials are not compatible for recycling purposes.  PLA itself can be recycled but at present, the infrastructure to separate and recycle this material does not exist in the U.S.  Until these problems are solved, the most sustainable disposal option for biobased plastics is composting.  Clear labeling of biobased plastics is critical to ensuring that these materials are properly disposed of in composting facilities.

Marketplace Trends Favor Biobased Plastics

Despite these concerns, more and more companies recognize the benefits and are switching to biobased plastics as they become increasingly financially competitive in response to rising fuel prices.  Wild Oats became the first grocery store in North America to switch to plant based plastics, at first paying 50% more for biobased takeout containers.  They took a chance and are now reaping the benefits as their customers are drawn to purchasing compostable containers.  Even with rising oil prices, they are paying less today than they would for traditional plastic.  Wal-Mart recently switched to biobased food packaging, involving 114 million produce containers, saving the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 11 million pounds.

You Can Help Shift the Marketplace

The prospect of a plant based economy, driven by biobased plastics, is incredibly exciting, and offers a promising safer alternative to petrochemical plastics such as PVC.  There remain important questions that need to be answered about the environmental and public health impact of these facilities.  As we move forward, numerous environmental, health-based, and sustainable agriculture groups including CHEJ are working together to answer these questions and to encourage more companies to switch to plant based plastics, and at the same time, ensure these plastics are truly sustainable.  Contact CHEJ if you’d like to get involved in this growing campaign to ensure your family’s products are safe for our children, homes, and communities.

Examples of Products Using Plant Based Plastics
Plastic bags – BioBag
Water bottles – Biota Water
Disposable forks and knives – Cereplast
Wall carpets – Interface
Cups for smoothies – Mrs. Fields Brands
Electronics packaging and products – Sony
Car floormats – Toyota
Produce packaging – Wal-Mart
Deli containers – Wild Oats

How Can I Identify Biobased Plastics?

You can help build support for safer products by supporting companies using biobased plastics.  Look for the “NatureWorks” insignia generally found on the underside of PLA packaging such as food cups and the “compostable” logo signifying a product is compostable.  Not all “compostable” products are made from biobased plastics.

For More Information:

Links to key manufacturers and associations producing plant based plastics.

The Biodegradable Products Institute