We’ve come a long way since celluloid appeared in the 19th century. That first bioplastic, Parkesine (an Alex Parkes invention), was too brittle to be a successful replacement for the widespread use of single-use plastic today.
However, bioplastics are becoming increasingly popular in the plastics industry as a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics. Bioplastics are derived from renewable sources, such as cornstarch, sugarcane, and potato starch, and can be biodegradable, compostable, or both.
While bioplastics offer many benefits over traditional plastics, such as reduced environmental impact, there are also challenges to producing bioplastics at scale.
Benefits of Bioplastic
One of the main benefits of bioplastics is that they are derived from renewable resources, unlike traditional plastics made from fossil fuels. Bioplastics have a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Additionally, bioplastics can be biodegradable or compostable, which means they can break down in the environment without leaving harmful microplastics.
Another benefit of bioplastics is their recyclability. While not all bioplastics can be recycled, some can be processed like traditional plastics. This means that bioplastics can be incorporated into the existing recycling infrastructure, reducing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills.
What work still has to be done to make bioplastics the preferred packaging of the future?
Producing bioplastics at scale presents challenges. One of the main challenges is the cost of production. Bioplastics are currently more expensive to produce than traditional plastics, primarily due to the high cost of feedstock and the lack of economies of scale in production. This cost disparity limits the widespread adoption of bioplastics.
Another challenge is that not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable; some can take a long time to break down. Bioplastics can still contribute to pollution and harm wildlife if not disposed of correctly. Additionally, there are concerns about bioplastics’ impact on food production, as many bioplastics are made from crops that could be used for food.
A seat at the table
Despite these challenges, there is still a lot of potential for bioplastics in the plastics industry. Researchers are working to develop new, more sustainable feedstocks for bioplastics, such as algae, bacteria, and waste materials.
There is also a push to develop bioplastics at scale and at a lower cost than traditional plastics. Furthermore, there is a growing demand for bioplastics from consumers and businesses, especially in the food service industry, looking for more sustainable options.
We need bioplastic engineers who can overcome the challenges of an industry segment ripe for reinvention.
Bioplastics are a promising alternative to traditional plastics, offering several benefits over their fossil fuel-based counterparts. By overcoming the challenges of producing bioplastics at scale, including the cost of production and concerns about the impact on food production, bioplastics can improve single-use packaging.
As technology advances and consumer demand grows, the future of plastics industry looks promising.
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