January 21, 2013 by Bill Johnson
Available sources of petroleum oil is declining, and garbage landfills are overflowing. Here I’ll talk about alternatives when making plastic products.
The majority of packaging for consumer products today is made out of some form of plastic. Whether it’s wrapping for food products, or the package for an electronic device, plastics are nearly universal in the consumer world. This creates a major problem: as consumption increases, so will the demand for packaging made out of plastic. While this may seem good to some, as it will generate more business for companies that produce the plastic materials, it actually has an environmental impact that can no longer be ignored.
Plastics are made by using petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. As we use more and more of it for fuel and to create certain materials, we need to ask ourselves whether there would be a better alternative available. Another issue with standard plastics is that they take very long to biodegrade. Unlike organic materials, plastics that sit in a landfill may take decades or even centuries to break down and degrade completely. This results in tons of waste that simply piles up in landfills, and we’re simply running out of place to put all of this garbage. Recycling is an option, of course, but the challenge is that recycling facilities are relatively expensive to run and aren’t available in many areas. This leads consumers to simply put materials that would be otherwise recyclable in the garbage, and at worst to simply throw it on the ground.
Bioplastics are one of the solutions that is being developed to provide a solution for this growing environmental concern. These plastics are materials that have the same properties as “traditional” plastic, but rather are made out of organic material, which makes them easier to break down when discarded. Furthermore, they have the advantage of not using petroleum in their making, which reduces our dependence on oil to make them.
PHA bioplastic is one of the most common types of Biodegradable Plastics that can be found. PHA is made naturally when bacterias ferment lipids or sugars. The main advantage is that this type of bioplastic is very versatile, and its properties can be manipulated to create materials that are used in many different areas. The medical industry currently is one of the biggest consumers of PHA bioplastics.
PA 11 or Polyamide 11 is often used in places where high resistance to heat and mechanical stresses is important. It is derived from a naturally occurring oil. Components in many vehicles, such as aircraft and automobiles can benefit from this type of plastic. It can also be used in the production of sport equipment, such as running shoes.
PLA plastics are called Polyactic acid plastics, and are usually fully transparent. This plastic is derived from certain forms of cane sugar, and is commonly used in packaging materials, due to the ease of molding it into almost any desired shape. However, one of its issues is that large scale production of PLA is still more expensive than plastics which are derived from more common, petroleum based sources.