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

There are no bio-based plastics currently in commercial use or under development that are fully sustainable, says a new study.

According to US researchers, a number of environmental and occupational health and safety risks are linked to their production but it is known that bio-based materials may be more sustainable than petroleum-based counterparts.

As the research team have said, bio-based plastics are those “in which 100% of the carbon is derived from renewable agricultural and forestry resources such as corn starch, soybean protein and cellulose”.

They said that sustainable materials reduce impacts to occupational and public health as well as the environment.

The aim of the project was to qualitatively gauge the general sustainability of a raft of different bio-based plastics by reviewing literature and evaluating the environmental, health and safety impacts through their cradle to grave lifecycle analysis (LCA).

In two sustainability and safety spectrums in order to display their analysis, the scientists said that polylactide acid (PLA), starch (pure thermoplastic starch: TPS) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), scored the highest whilst nanobiocomposites are considered to be the least preferable.

The scientists also conducted a lifecycle analysis that included occupational and environmental hazards.

The LCA included the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hazardous pesticides to grow feedstocks as well as utilisation of dangerous chemicals or petroleum-based co-polymers during plastic production and processing; risky additives, untested nanomaterials, workplaces hazards, disposal options as well as potential impacts to food supply and water and energy usage.

Although the research team discovered that bio-based materials delivered measurable eco-improvements over petroleum-based plastics (PBM), none were actually fully sustainable.

Kenneth Geiser and his team, in the study, said: “Although bio-based plastics may be more sustainable than petroleum-based plastics in some aspects, this analysis found that there are environmental and occupational health and safety hazards in their production.

“Although advances have been achieved, fully sustainable bio-based plastics with all the highly valued properties of conventional plastics for all types of products are not yet available”.

According to the research undertaken, PLA production uses 30-50% less fossil energy and creates 50-70% less carbon dioxide emission than PBP but, however, feedstock for the material is grown using GMOs and pesticides. Fine starch dust can cause also explosions.

Nano-biocomposites, such as cellulose and lignin were concluded to having relatively high energy and water requirements, emission problems and potential toxicity hazards.

The study also said that preferred bioplastics would use non-GMO feedstock, avoid hazardous additives, be energy and water efficient, address environmental and safety concerns during production, not impact the food supply by using by-products rather than primary food feedstocks. They should also have flexible disposal options such as compostability or recyclability.

 

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