Bio-based materials are becoming more mainstream and according to Duke University’s Center for Sustainability & Commerce, over $400 billion worth of conventional manufacturing products are produced each year using biomass, which in many cases are more sustainable than older alternatives. Nonetheless, bio-based alternatives have yet to reach scale due to traditional industry adhering to classic chemistry.
This is beginning to change, as breakthroughs in bio-based materials engineering reach a tipping point. Collective understanding of how microbes work is, for the first time, allowing us to make chemicals in a safer and more environmentally friendly way. It is possible for us to engineer microbes to have specific functions, including a variety of sustainability applications.
“Although the technologies were developed many years ago, large scale production of polymers from biomass was not feasible because those technologies were too expensive,” wrote researchers Lei Pei, Markus Schmidt and Wei Wei in a 2011 research paper. “However, in recent years, the innovations from the research sectors, particularly those on biotechnology, have made some of the biological conversions able to compete with the existing fossil-based processes.”
Bioplastics punt petroleum
Bioplastics are just like conventional plastic, but they come from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels. They commonly include starch plastics, cellulosic polymers and polylactic acid (PLA), among many others. Bioplastics make up only 300,000 metric tons of the plastics market — less than 1 percent of the 181 million metric tons of synthetic plastics produced worldwide each year, according to Duke University. However, the bioplastics market is growing by 20 to 30 percent per year, which barely keeps up with demand.
The move to mainstreaming bioplastics made a huge leap forward in 2005 when Walmart announced it would sell some produce in PLA containers. Others, including Newman’s Own Organics and Wild Oats, have been using some PLA products for years.
The environmental advantages of bioplastics are self-evident: Their production produces less carbon dioxide than petrochemical-based plastics; and the uses of plant sources as renewable materials allow products to be recycled as new biomass sources for thermal, organic or chemical recycling.
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