Bio-based plastics study inaccurate

A recent study that discovered no bio-based plastics are fully sustainable was based on out-of-date information and contained significant inaccuracies, says the leading manufacturer of one of the materials covered in research.

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There’s no use of bio-based plastics in commercial or under development: Study

US-based NatureWorks, which produces more than 90% of global polylactic acid (PLA), said the paper from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell included erroneous data about the bio-based plastic.

Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the research raised several environmental and occupational health and safety concerns about the production of a raft of biobased plastics – including PLA, starch (pure thermoplastic starch:TPS), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and nano-biocomposites.

According to NatureWorks, most of the research was sound but that part of the paper identifying methodologies where the biopolymers industry could be more sustainable, “needs clarification and correction of factual errors”.

The research team mentioned specific concerns about PLA and suggested techniques that should be introduced to improve its sustainability.

Steve Davies, NatureWorks director of marketing & public affairs, said the concerns about PLA raised by the UMass-Lowell group were not based on current data and did not represent existing industry practice.

The study also mentions the risk from toxic organotin compounds which it said to have been used whilst producing PLA. However, Mr Davies said the company does not use any of these compounds in the production of its PLA brand, Ingeo.

He added that similar concerns over 1-octanol, claiming it is used as a polymerisation initiator are also inaccurate for the same reason. The group also failed to recognise other improvement made by the industry.

Mr Davies said: “The study recommends further technology advances or alternatives to reduce or replace the formation of co-products during the lactic acid fermentation process. It does not take into account the substantial technology advances already long in place at NatureWorks”.

From 2008, the company has employed a more efficient lactic acid fermentation process that substantially reduces the formation of the lactic acid co-products, said the marketing and public affairs director.

However, the scientific team didn’t confirm their findings on PLA with NatureWorks, said the company, which said it is the “only world scale manufacturer of polylactides”.

Many of their suggestions for improvements “are all things which the industry has long recognised, and either already implemented, or already has underway,” said Mr Davies.

The use of agricultural or industrial by-products as feedstocks for bioplastics as suggested by the study is already a main focus for the industry. The company said it has also done much work on the introduction of third party certification schemes to promote use of sustainable agricultural methods in growing crops for bioplastics.

Suggestions to implement GMO offsetting programmes by purchasing offsets equivalent to the amount of feedstocks used have already been introduced, added Mr Davies.

NatureWorks said it had achieved an independently assessed Cradle-to-Cradle certification for its entire family of PLA grades – issued by McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry.

Mr Davies said that the Cradle to Cradle certification is a multi-attribute program that assesses products for safety to human and environmental health, design for future use cycles, and sustainable manufacturing processes.

The company also said that all material and processes have an environmental impact and all involve a trade-off.

The firm said: “Biopolymers, as have been shown in third party reviewed research, score extremely high on some aspects of manufacture as compared to fossil carbon plastics. On other items, for example land usage, they score lower.

“And in that instance it’s because fossil carbons have nothing to do growing crops. Based on all of the factual production information available today and the best independent research basing a biopolymer on renewable resources is good society, business, and the environment”.

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