In the world of prefixes, ``bio'' has become one of the most popular, particularly in the lexicon of the plastics industry. From additives to downstream products, companies are rushing to attach those three, marketing-friendly letters to their products.
The newborn industry, however, still lacks the infrastructure and standardization that could make its products truly green.
``Bioplastic is a new material,'' said Jerome Allanic, Asia market development manager for Paris-based Arkema SA. ``It is just like a baby - we have to foster it and help it to grow.''
At the Centre for Management Technology's Bioplastics Markets conference, held April 16-17 in Shanghai, experts in the growing field voiced their concerns and suggested solutions for challenges ahead.
When the plastics industry talks ``bioplastics,'' it is speaking of one of two things: biodegradable plastics or plastics derived from biomass, like corn, cassava or agricultural waste. The two should not be confused, said Ramani Narayan, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.
``Bio-based doesn't have to be biodegradable,'' he said. ``If it is not biodegradable, it is not; don't force it.''
The largest player in the bio-based plastics industry has long been the only player. Blair, Neb.-based NatureWorks LLC has been building polylactic acid resin from corn since the company's inception in 1998. PLA is used in downstream products including juice boxes, diapers, foldable boxes and, in Japan, electronic products.
``This gives companies the opportunity to advertise more publicly a reduction in their carbon footprint,'' said Peter Clydesdale, Asia-Pacific managing director for NatureWorks. ``It offers greater differentiation to product holders.''
This differentiation is one that many consumers are willing to pay for - and must - as cost concerns are one of the biggest challenges for PLA. Feedstock remains expensive, as corn must first be processed into glucose and lactic acid before the PLA material is produced. PLA is also limited in strength, and NatureWorks still is working on a durable products segment.
The final challenge, according to Michigan State's Narayan, is honest marketing. While consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for products with NatureWorks' distinctive three-leaf logo, some products contain more PLA than others, and the environmental breakdown is not always clear.
A number of companies, for example, still advertise based on weight, Narayan said, measuring the percentage of PLA in a given product, which is what really matters in carbon emissions reduction. ``Bio-based plastic is an organic material, so it contains biocarbon,'' he said. ``If you know your biocarbon content, you can know your CO2 reduction.''
For example, a product mixing 30 percent cellulose with 70 percent polypropylene translates into an 18.5 percent CO2 reduction. Many companies using PLA-based product have applied this method of measurement for advertising, comparing the CO2 saved in certain products to that produced when driving a car a particular distance.
Biodegradable plastics also suffer from the pitfalls of unclear marketing. Biodegradability, according to Narayan, is often misused.
``Simply calling something biodegradable means nothing,'' he said. ``Not until you define time [to degrade] and define environment.''
Some products advertised as biodegradable are simply plastics that break down into pieces. Broken-down products can be worse than those that do not degrade at all, he said.
Most products advertised as biodegradable still will not degrade in a landfill. Without a controlled environment, many biodegradable plastics will release methane gas, a cause of global warming. To serve their purpose, biodegradable plastics need composting infrastructure - a facility that can capture methane gas and use it, potentially, for energy, as well as a place where refuse is circulated, allowing oxygen into the mix. Landfills typically lack oxygen and, as a result, their contents take longer than usual to break down.
Many cities and towns are building up a network of compost facilities, Narayan said. Beijing, for example, has designed a number of sites prepared to handle biodegradable plastics used during the Olympics.