Bioplastics, a possible future
Supporting upcycling is one of the possibilities for giving plastic a second life, but it’s not the only way to address its impacts. Integrating bioplastics into design projects is equally, if not in some ways more important.
In the over sixty years since their arrival on the productive scene, plastic materials have changed enormously. We often refer to them in the singular – plastic – when in reality this scenario is populated by many different formulas that vary in terms of their origin and performance, and that are in constant evolution. In this shifting universe, “bio” versions of traditional high-performance plastics, i.e. derived from renewable rather than fossil-based sources, such as so-called Green Polyethylene and bio-polyester (PET), are proliferating. However, these are neither biodegradable nor compostable.
The good news is that, while it may seem like an oxymoron given the state of our oceans, today even plastics can be eco-conscious. In recent years, biodegradable and compostable types have been developed and perfected, reaching levels of performance that make them suitable even for specialised uses. Amongst these some are still fossil fuel-based, such as polybutylene succinate (PBS): biodegradable and compostable, it’s derived from bacterial fermentation and its properties allow it to be employed for uses normally reserved for non-biodegradable plastics. Finally, there are biodegradable compounds that, instead of being derived from corn or potatoes (which, if used in massive quantities could cause imbalances in land use), are based on carbon, like Italian-developed polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), created by Lux-on by capturing atmospheric CO2.
Designing bioplastics for the production of durable goods is the aim of companies such as Crafting Plastics!, a European design studio based in Berlin, Germany and Bratislava, Slovakia. Its team spent six years developing Nuatan, a patented new-generation plastic that is based on 100 per cent renewable raw materials and is also completely biodegradable, which the studio uses to create high value-added products. The high-performance material is the result of a longterm interdisciplinary collaboration between Crafting Plastics!, the Slovak University of Technology and Panara, a Slovenian company initially specialised in polyethylene film. Since 2006, Panara has been investing in bioplastics and produces several types based on PHB (polyhydroxybutyrate, a biodegradable plastic made naturally with bacteria), PLA (polylactic acid, a polymer derived from biomasses) or biodegradable and compostable polyester.
Composed entirely of plant-based biopolymers made of PLA and PHB obtained from natural sources like corn or potato starch, Nuatan can resist to temperatures of over 100°C and has a programmable lifespan ranging from one to fifty years, depending on the mixture. When put into an industrial composter, the material biodegrades in water, CO2 and biomass. The second generation currently being developed will also biodegrade in domestic composts, soil and ocean water. The new material can be injection moulded and 3D printed, or “blown” like traditional plastics. It was developed and fine-tuned with the precise aim of accelerating the transition to a circular economy, optimising the lifecycle from the moment of production all the way to the final dismantling of various products, including consumer electronics.
Plasticiet is a plastic construction material that differs in appearance depending on the waste that’s used to make it (rigid or soft plastics) and is reminiscent of stone composites, such as terrazzo and reconstituted marble
What about recyclability? Important steps are also being made in this field: an Italian startup, Direct 3D, has perfected and patented a special extrusion head that allows for 3D printing from granules, powder or mixed shavings, rather than just classic filaments. This paves the way for using recycled plastics even in small-volume productions.
Also, on a larger scale, Dow Chemical, one of the world’s principle plastic manufacturers, recently announced that it has developed a way of using recycled plastic in the production of alternative asphalt. And in the Netherlands the Plastic Road project is currently being tested on cycling lanes in Rotterdam, with the aim of creating roads that integrate cabling and water distribution systems entirely from plastic waste recovered from the oceans and diverted from incineration plants.
Hence, the challenge is open.