Bio-based materials, also known as biomaterials, are plant-based raw materials, for example cotton, silk or wood, and of course we all use these in our everyday lives, for example in packaging, clothing and furniture.
But in recent years an exciting new use for biomaterials has emerged, using biomaterials as an alternative to fossil (oil) based materials, for example in the production of plastic. These are known as “sustainable biomaterials” and the plastic manufactured from sustainable biomaterials is known as one type of bioplastic.
However, not all bioplastics are equal. According to the European Bioplastics Organisation, bioplastics can be divided into three main categories:
- bio-based or partly bio-based, non-biodegradable plastics, such as softwood cellulose-based Woodly®
- plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable
- plastics that are based on fossil resources and are biodegradable
Bio-based, non-biodegradable bioplastic is good news for the environment and for the future of plastics in general. Not only does it mean that plastic itself can now be created from renewable resources such as trees, but it also creates new opportunities for the circular economy and for the recycling of plastic in general. It means the biomaterial-based plastic can be recycled, supporting a “circular economy”. One good example of this is Woodly® which is designed to be recycled in the plastic recycling stream after being used, but which can also be combusted if necessary.
But what about biodegradable bioplastic? According to Tommi Vuorinen, Research Team Leader at VTT, in our blog post from December 2020, “The role of recyclable bioplastics in the fight against climate change”; while biodegradable bioplastic is fine in some cases, under certain conditions biodegradable bioplastic “eventually decompose into water and carbon dioxide meaning that the carbon-dioxide is released into the atmosphere. On the other hand, when the material is recycled, the carbon-dioxide stays ‘bound’ to the product.” In the case of Woodly®, the plastic has been technically proven to be easily recyclable and can remain within the circular economy and be recycled up to 5 times while retaining the same mechanical and physical properties.
The plastics circular economy
Wikipedia defines a circular economy as “an economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources. Circular systems employ reuse, sharing, repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling to create a closed-loop system, minimising the use of resource inputs and the creation of waste, pollution and carbon emissions.” As you can imagine from this definition, a circular economy is complex – it is difficult to establish; hard to measure and manage; and requires lots of cooperation between raw material producers, product manufacturers, consumers and recycling organizations. As consumers, it is clear that we play an important role in making a circular economy work in practice – not just in the purchasing choices we make but also in our ability to recycle plastic products appropriately. Read more about how to maximise product recycling in our blog post from June 2020.
Biomaterial based plastic is on the increase
New uses for biomaterial-based plastic are popping up every day. A recent article from Lifegate: The future belongs to biomaterials. How designers are taking up the challenge states that “Taking note of recent proposals on the international stage, it’s clear that the future – at least the near future – belongs to biobased materials inspired by the world of design.”. In a similar vein, an article published by Anthesis in 2019 states that “Synthetic leather made from mushroom roots, nylon processed from castor oil and fabrics spun from spider silk. A slew of novel materials has hit the market in recent years, aiming to give brands more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional fibres. These innovative new textiles have been welcomed by high profile designers and retailers who are blazing a trail for the wider industry and bringing them to the attention of consumers.”
The stakes are high.
I will end this post with a reference from an article titled Biomaterials: the future for plastics? published by the University of Manchester magazine in 2019: “Now there is a fast-growing realisation that society needs to move away from fossil fuel-derived plastics and adopt more sustainable materials. We need fresh thinking to tackle the build-up of plastics in our environment. Fortunately, modern biotechnology gives us the tools to harness nature to help solve these challenges. Industrial biotechnology (IB) is the application of nature’s catalysts – enzymes – and biological systems to produce and process materials, chemicals and energy.”
This article is written by Woodly’s guest blogger Graham Honeywill.