What are bioplastics?
Bioplastics are derived from or synthesized by bacteria, or by plants. In contrast with the plastic that we all know to be made of petroleum, bioplastics are made from renewable sources and are biodegradable. Unfortunately, bioplastics still make up an insignificant portion of all plastics made. However, many companies and labs are conducting the necessary research to make the manufacturing processes cheaper and have high yields.
Since the introduction of petroleum-based plastic, its use has exploded and now we cannot imagine life without it, plastic is omnipresent. In the last few decades, we started to realize the damage the plastic is causing to the environment. As synthetic plastics are usually not biodegradable, decomposing it is very hard. Despite all the efforts in recycling, our landfills, oceans, rivers, beaches, and other natural spots are getting full with all kinds of plastic trash.
Previous to the discovery of petroleum-based plastics, all the plastic materials used were of natural origin. Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs were using materials like natural latex and rubber already in 1500 BC.
In 1855, the first-ever man-made plastic was made from cellulose, so it actually was a bioplastic. The discovery was made by Alexander Parkes and he called it Parkesine. Nowadays, the material is known as celluloid.
In 1907 Bakelite was invented. This was the first fully synthetic plastic. It was discovered by Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland. This was the first synthetic plastic to be mass-produced. The mass-production of synthetic plastics was mastered after 1930, and there was a boom of petroleum-based plastics after World War II in an effort to recover the economy.
In 1926, Frech scientist Maurice Lemoigne discovered what is now considered the first known bioplastic made from bacteria called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). Unfortunately, his discovery was neglected for several decades, because at that time petroleum was abundant and cheap and the pollution was not yet considered a problem.
In 1930 Henry Ford started to use some bioplastics made from soy oil in order to manufacture some car parts. However, he stopped using it after WWII as the synthetic plastics became widely available and cheap.
In the decade of 1970s, there was a petroleum crisis that sparked interest in looking for solutions that didn’t require oil as the raw material, as the oil was scarce and expensive.
In 1975, Japanese scientists discovered a bacteria (Flavobacterium) that was able to break down nylon, this is how the principle of biodegradable plastics was conceived.
The company Novamont was funded in 1990. They are the current leader in bioplastic production. MATER-BI is its flagship family of biodegradable and compostable bioplastics.
In 2010 first bioplastics made from seaweed were invented. This is a big step, as the plantation of seaweed does not require chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and land. The resulting bioplastic is rigid, durable and at the end of the life cycle, it is compostable and becomes a natural fertilizer.
Nowadays, companies and laboratories of all sizes keep researching the field. Many of them are already producing biodegradable and compostable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. Consumers and even companies prefer to purchase safer and more environmentally friendly products as the public environmental conscience is increasing.