Globally, we produce roughly 310 million tons of plastic each year. Almost all of it is petro-plastic, made from fossil fuels. Experts, however, estimate that 90 percent of current plastics could be derived from plants instead. Bio-based plastics come from the earth, and those that are biodegradable can return to it—often with lower carbon emissions.
What affords plastics their malleability are chainlike polymers, comprised of many atoms or molecules bound to one another. Cellulose, the most abundant organic material on earth, is a polymer in the cell walls of plants. Chitin is another abundant polymer, found in the shells and exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Potatoes, sugarcane, tree bark, algae, and shrimp all contain natural polymers that can be converted to plastic.
Most bioplastics are used in packaging, but they are finding their way into everything from textiles to pharmaceuticals to electronics. Research continues to push the bounds of feedstocks, formulations, and applications. Bioplastics can sequester carbon, especially when made from waste biomass. The big challenge for bioplastics is separation from other waste and appropriate processing. Otherwise, they do not fulfill their promise as more sustainable materials.
310 million tons of plastic: UNEP. Valuing Plastics: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 2014.
production [may] quadruple by 2050: WEF. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics. Cologny/Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016.
5 to 6 percent of…oil production: Chen, Ying Jian. “Bioplastics and Their Role in Achieving Global Sustainability.” Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research, 6, no. 1 (2014): 226-231; Thompson, Richard C., et al. “Plastics, the Environment, and Human Health: Current Consensus and Future Trends.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364 (2009): 2153–2166; WEF, New Plastics.
90 percent…could be derived from plants: Shen, Li, et al. Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio-based Plastics. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, Utrecht University, 2009.
earliest plastics [from] plant cellulose; billiards: 99% Invisible. “The Post-Billiards Age,” Podcast episode 164, 2015; American Chemical Society. “The Bakelizer.” Booklet to Commemorate the Designation of the Original Bakelizer as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. November 9, 1993.
Henry Ford…soybean car: The Henry Ford. “Soybean Car.” https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-resources/popular-topics/soy-bean-car/.
invention of Bakelite, Leo Baekeland: American Chemical Society, “The Bakelizer.”
bio based and biodegradable: Chen, “Bioplastics.”
plastics end up in ecosystems [vs.] recycled: WEF, New Plastics.
outweigh fish in…oceans by 2050: WEF, New Plastics.