Ecoinnovation: Sustainability & Going Green

Where Creativity Can Save the Planet

Compostable Biopolymers: Too Good To Be True? May 14, 2010

Filed under: Manufacturing — bt25 @ 5:45 pm

When I first heard about compostable biopolymers, I thought they had to be too good to be true.  They seemed to be such a great solution to our current dependency on petroleum based plastics.  After fairly exhaustive research, I have to say that they really do seem to be a viable option for companies to avoid the environmental risks and impacts associated with traditional plastics.

I’ve outlined three important benefits for businesses considering the use of compostable bioplastics:  The alleviation of financial risk, the quality and safety of end products, and the environmental viability of biopolymers.

Reduction and Stabilization of Costs

Cellulosic biodegradable Biopolymers are a viable raw materials solution for many companies.  There are several reasons for why organizations should consider adopting this raw material.  The biggest reason for switching is the reduction of financial risk through the stabilization and reduction of costs.  Market prices of traditional plastics follow the same erratic pattern as fuel prices.[1] This volatility creates cost fluctuations, which can be eliminated by using renewable inputs such as cellulose.  Additionally, because this technology is relatively new, companies can reduce their costs by locking in low-price contracts with biopolymer startup companies.  At least in the short run, companies who begin using biopolymers can take advantage of the financial opportunities associated with being the first adopter.

Quality and Safety of Bioplastic Products

Critics often pose the complaint that products created out of biopolymers do not perform as well as their traditional counterparts.  The accompanying photograph shows a biodegradable, bioplastic produced by the Danish company, Papcorn.  Bioplastics such as these are already in use on college campuses in the United States—students say they cannot tell the difference between these and more conventional plastic dinnerware.[2] Additionally, much like traditional, petroleum-based polymers, biopolymers are flexible in their applications.  Biopolymers can be used from everything from clothing fibers to injection molding and packaging materials.[3] Finally, the safe, non-toxic aspect of biopolymers makes them appealing to producers of toys and plastic containers, such as water bottles.

Dishes Made From Compostable Bioplastic

Environmental Viability

Biodegradable cellulosic biopolymers are also environmentally viable because they draw their raw materials from non-food sources.  This ensures that companies who invest in this raw material will not encounter the same problems associated with some bio-fuel technologies. Additionally, end of life environmental impact is practically non-existent.  Biodegradable plastics are derived from “natural sources that are microbial grown.  The fiber reinforcements are produced from common crops such as hemp.  Microorganisms are able to consume these materials in their entirety, eventually leaving only carbon dioxide and water as by-products.[4]” Biodegradable bio-plastics used for packaging and other products will greatly reduce the amount of plastic ending up in landfills.

The manufacturing process of bio-plastics is also more eco-efficient.  It only produces approximately .27 pounds of C02 per pound of plastic as opposed to 3 pounds of C02 per pound of traditional plastics.[5] This kind of C02 reduction translates to real future cost savings as more countries are taxing or capping carbon emissions.


[1] http://www.iewc.com/uploadedImages/News/Plastics.jpg

[2] Environment News Wire, “Four Plastics Companies Commit to Biodegradable Plastics,” February 16, 2005.

[3] http://www.natureworksllc.com/Product-And-Applications.aspx

[4] Biodegradable Polymers:  Past, Present, and Future: M. Kolybaba, L.G. Tabil , S. Panigrahi, W.J. Crerar, T. Powell, B. Wang

[5] http://www.ecogeek.org/content/view/2038/64/

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