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Turning Plants into Plastics
Dawn Danby, 28 Feb 06


The chemical industry has always been happy to remind us of the undeniable usefulness of petroleum-based plastics. "Look around you!", they shout. "Without us, where would you be? We made your contact lenses!" So it's sort of interesting to watch as bio-based alternatives have crept up into products and onto headlines.

The New York Times has done a tidy business-focused overview of Dupont and the other major corporate players who hope to turn this tide. Besides devising carpet ingredients and large-scale ethanol production, they've started working on a few concepts that at least sound more interesting, including "plant-based hair dyes and nail polishes that will not adhere to skin, surgical bio-glues that can stanch internal bleeding and a textile fiber made from sugar that will act and feel like cotton."

These developments have emerged pretty quickly: just a few years ago, besides nifty little medical devices that dissolved in your bloodstream, biopolymers were rare. Now materials like corn-based (PLA) bioplastics are making their way into water bottles and disposable cutlery, although - at least for now - the waste rarely makes it back into the soil. Industrial biotech is a big, big industry, so it's worth keeping in mind that with their less experimental work DuPont is by no means claiming to set aside GMOs, or any number of brutal agricultural practices threatening topsoil and water. In the short term, though, I doubt this is the conversation that the investors are having. Joel has written about the way that businesses have wrestled with making bio-based materials succeed financially. Maybe what's most interesting is the fact that this has made it into the NYT business pages.

Even though it's less developed, projects like Geoff Coates' effort to make plastics from oranges and CO2 are still more weird and compelling, promising to use carbon dioxide - rather than emit it. Until someone figures out how to grow these ingredients in a nontoxic, regenerative, petroleum-free manner, I maintain that crops are first for food - not for food packaging.

(Thanks to Shiva Polefka & John Maas for the NYT tip)

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Thanks for taking a critical-thinking approach to this technology.

Most people never account for the petroleum used in modern industrial agriculture; it is likely more efficient to simply convert petroleum into plastic, rather than to use petroleum to grow plants which are then turned into plastic. (Paging r. goldberg)

There is organic farming of course; although organic farming wouldn't be sustainable if one were processing the entire plant for oil and fuel. (Unused portions of plants are typically recycled and turned into mulch using organic methods, to sustain the soil without outside petroleum inputs)

Posted by: Jon S. on 28 Feb 06

It's pretty worrying how industries are turning to food to create manufacturing materials. I'm sure it's all much safer than using potentially toxic substances, but before you know it, there will be acres of agricultural land being used to produce no longer food items, but plants that will be used to help make dyes, cutlery, furniture, clothing, etc...

Posted by: Lynn on 1 Mar 06

i see bio-supplying chemical manufacture as an important technological development, and previous commentors' concerns as important but arguable. While ag as an industry is fossil fueled right now, theres no reason that industry cant switch to renewable energy self-sufficiency in ways that this blog often discusses for homes, personal transportation, and cities. As carbon intensity for growing crops begins (or continues?) to drop, then the ideas pursued by duPont may indeed look increasingly like constructive sequestration of atmospheric carbon (pull it from the atmosphere and put it into our products).

Genetic modification and use of certain high-nutrient biowaste (e.g. human/animal sludge) may indeed be quite inappropriate for human food, but what about for growing raw materials for manufacturing, especially if the crops are designed to pull extra carbon out? in the face of a climate crisis, this seems like it should be on the table.

as far as crops needing to be for food first, i agree, but i think the concern is a little misdirected-- crops should be for *human* food first, rather than for cows, pigs or chickens that we subsequentyly eat (at a roughly 10 to 1 protein in/out ratio). I speculate that getting livestock out of the food supply chain would free up a lot more productive ag land in the short term than will be lost planting stock for bio-chem manufacturing.

Posted by: sp0078 on 1 Mar 06

There is probably a significant amount of materials engineering that can be done with the non-nutritional matter in plants, right?

Also, algae and other microbiota can be the feedstock for these plastics, no?

Posted by: mackay on 1 Mar 06

I applaud the way you are thinking, ie, fewer cows (my grandparents did fine with meat once a week, less during the depression) but NOW you are going after consumerist culture --

-- good luck with that. The overfed libertarians will point and laugh, the neocons will assert that the hamburger way of life is non-negotiable.

Posted by: Jon S. on 2 Mar 06

the usda has a great Federal Biobased Products Preferred Procurement Program now, which can point you to Fire Arm Lubricants, Durable Plastic Films, Industrial Cleaners/Degreasers, Cutting, Drilling, & Tapping oils, Durable Foams, Coated Printing and Writing Papers, Gear Lubricants, Industrial solvents, Wood & Concrete Sealers, Concrete and Asphalt Release, Household Cleaners, Food Cleaners and about a milolion other products-- ALL BIOBASED!!!

While I agree with Lynn--- and hence like stuff like the plant-based plastic-in-a-petri-dish, like Plantic i think its kinda sad that Cargil has pretty much blocked these guys Shimadzu because Shimadzu makes a plastic that is fermented lactic acid (like Natureworks PLA) but made from waste prioducts. Beer waste to be exact! They make clothes, industrial plastics, reading glasses... all out of ferment beer waste!

I mean, imgine if that technology was making plastic out of Bud, Coors and the rests' waste instead of "treating" it and then tossing it away...

Much better than corn. dontcha think??

Posted by: lee on 3 Mar 06



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