Sources and Manufacturing
The vast majority of plastics are made from petroleum, a finite resource. While we continue to discover new sources of fossil fuels, we also need to prepare for a time when the various sources of liquid petroleum become too expensive to continue to supply the plastics market. With this in mind, scientists are working to develop new bio-based plastics that can perform as well as their fossil fuel counterparts.
Plastics from Plants
Over the past 20 years, chemists and materials engineers have harnessed the power of bioprocessing (think: biofuels and beer making) to extract useful chemicals from agricultural products. These chemicals can be further converted to plastics, many of which have properties quite similar to conventional petroleum derived materials. The future of this industry relies on the economical competitiveness of these new materials, as well as their performance relative to established plastics used today.
Many, but not all, of the biobased plastics, and some that are fossil-derived, are also susceptible to degradation under normal biologic conditions, both in the body and in the environment. There is considerable debate about the meaning of this biodegradation. How quickly must it take place (we could all agree that some level of degradation would take place eventually, if one waited long enough)? What byproducts of the degradation constitute true biodegradation? The articles below address these questions and more.