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Biodegradable Plastic
Jamais Cascio, 6 Dec 04

flowerphone.jpgIt's been all over the blogosphere, but we've now been asked to say a little something about it: researchers at the University of Warwick, UK, and the Pvaxx Research & Development company have come up with a polymer that looks and feels like any other plastic, but which biodegrades to soil; researchers then embedded a sunflower seed in the plastic, so that when discarded, a plant will grow, feeding on the nitrates in the biodegraded polymer. Motorola initiated the research, but hasn't yet decided whether to actually use the material.

While some of the coverage for the story has suggested (at least in the headlines) that this will lead to biodegradable mobile phones, the reality is at once less exciting and more practical. Although discarded cell phones are contributors to toxic metals in the waste stream, the likely initial use will be for the interchangeable cell phone covers, popular with the kids these days and more likely to be tossed out when no longer fashionable or "groovy." Moreover, biodegradable plastic could have much broader application than phone shells; the CNN report suggests that Pvaxx is already looking at uses in "electronics, horticulture, ammunition and household cleaning." I must admit to finding that particular combination of applications fascinating.

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Comments

Thanks for the summary, Jamais. It's been interesting following this story.

The item that would top my list of early applications: toothbrush.


Posted by: Emily on 6 Dec 04

Yeah, tootbrushes would be a great idea.

What about plastic containers that are otherwise not recycled?

What other kinds of things can this kind of plastic be used for?


Posted by: Jon Foley on 6 Dec 04

Any news on how taxing on the environment this biodegradable plastic is to manufacture? Do the benefits outweigh the negatives?


Posted by: alex on 6 Dec 04

Please note Biodegradeable Plastics Website; there are a surprising number of polymers already developed, like the corn-sugar-based PLA in production by Cargill-Dow joint venture.

http://www.bpsweb.net/02_english/03_new_e/what_g/what.htm

It's possible that any or all of these green plastics could be threatened if demand for them does not improve. Consumers need to ask for greater transparency in identification of plastic content and demand green plastic. Consumers must also be willing to pay a premium for green since these products are initially more expensive than petro-based plastics. At some point petro-supplies will dictate a shift, but a thriving and competitive green plastics industry in advance of that point will certainly make it easier to cut over from petro-based plastics. It's simply not enough to say there are green plastics; we have to demand and use them.


Posted by: Rayne on 6 Dec 04

Definitely sounds interesting. New lines of biodegradable cups, plates, and utensils have been on the market for a while, these are great things to use for cafeterias, (restaurants, etc), so you could develop a waste stream for composting.

One issue from corn based plastics would be similar to ethanol's net energy problems. We're using petroleum to grow starch to make biodegradable plastic, with perhaps a small increase of output from input. What other starch sources exist with a better return?

I just tried cooking taro root for the first time. When looking for recipes, one site said it has 5 times as much starch as potato. Sure enough, when I put the chunks in boiling water, the water immediately started to thicken and burble like I'd thrown starch into it. Commentators on a gardening site said taro grows like a weed in Southern (US) climes and can actually be a problem. Hmm, super starchy plant that actually grows too well?

Time to get those markets rolling.


Posted by: Bear K on 6 Dec 04


Not to just completely fertilize everyone's parade here, but what about the idea that introducing non-native species is itself a kind of pollution, and a potentially even nastier one than a plastic cell phone cover. Just because it's a plant doesn't make it good to plant. And last time I checked, "sunflower" was really just a gussied up synonym for "weed."

Aw, hell -- I'm depressing even myself. I take it back: make mine a kudzu phone. Evolution is more fun than watching Robot Wars anyway.


Posted by: Kyle Johnson on 7 Dec 04

The only PVAXX patent I could find (Scifinder Scholar; see title & number below) concerned the manufacture of biodegradable capsules from poly(vinyl alchohol) w/ some additives. While these are degradeable, the parent polymer poly(vinyl acetate) is composed of monomers made industrially from ethylene and acetic acid, which both usually ultimately come from oil.

Maybe they have some newer technology that is greener, but presumably they would have patented it before the big news blitz?

This is not to say they aren't on the right track, just that there is still a long way to go.

Stevens, Henry Guy; Dawson, John Colin. Apparatus for blow-molding capsules of poly(vinyl alcohol). PCT Int. Appl. (2001), 32 pp. CODEN: PIXXD2 WO 2001064421 A1 20010907 CAN 135:200544 AN 2001:661332


Posted by: b grubbs on 7 Dec 04

Hi Kyle,

Point well taken. Your right, you wouldn't want to release them in a place that they would grow to the exclusion of native species. As I recall, kudzu root is used for starch in Japan. So, maybe you might be on to something. Dig up the kudzo roots and sell them, then put a herd of goats in the patch to keep down any new suckers for a few years, then move on to the next patch. :-)

Scratch the idea of introducing plants into areas where they could become an issue.


Posted by: Bear K on 7 Dec 04



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