ASIA - In recent years, one packaging solution touted as a ‘sustainable’ option that has been emerging in Asia is Bioplastics and biodegradable and/or compostable packaging. But what exactly are Bioplastics, and what does it mean when a company says its products are biodegradable and/or compostable?
In the first of a special editorial series ‘Bioplastics 101’, we get down to basics and examine what bioplastics really are, and how you can check on the authenticity of a bioplastic, and try to address the big question: Are bioplastics packaging solutions sustainable?
What are Bioplastics?
There are many definitions for bioplastics, but essentially, a bioplastic is a plastic material that is either derived from biological raw materials (known as being biobased), or biodegradable, or both.
As with all sustainability issues, there is some debate over which type of bioplastic is the most sustainable. Generally though, the most sustainable type of bioplastic is the one that is both biobased (sustainable front-of-pipe material source) and biodegradable (environmentally-friendly waste management at end-of-pipe).
Biological raw materials are derived from biomass, such as corn, sugarcane, cassava, vegetable fats and oil, agricultural waste etc. Biomass is renewable, because it is of agricultural/bio-based origin.
It doesn’t really matter what the plant source is; what is needed is the sugars from the plant. Through the process of photosynthesis, every plant converts carbon from CO2 in the atmosphere () as it grows, into materials such as lignin, cellulosic, and simple or complex sugars (e.g. starch).
While the manufacturing process for bio-based plastics may differ slightly from one to another manufacturer – mainly in relation to the biomass source - but the science is similar.
For example, NatureWorks LLC produces its PLA bioplastics, branded as ‘Ingeo’, from dextrose, a sugar derived from the starch in corn that has been grown for many industrial and functional applications. In production, the sugar is converted by microorganisms through fermentation into lactic acid. The lactic acid molecules then combine to first form lactide rings, which link up to form long chains of polylactide polymer (PLA) – this process is known as polymerization.
The Ingeo bioplastic pellets are converted into a wide range of commercial products, including fibers, rigid and flexible packaging, and durable products.
What does it mean when we say a bioplastic is biodegradable?
Biodegradation is a type of decomposition process in which naturally-occurring micro-organisms that are available in the environment convert material into natural substances: water, carbon dioxide and biomass. In other words, biodegradation is decomposition by biological means......
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