Manufacturers and environmentalists have long been working to create more sustainable, eco-friendly plastics. Traditional plastic manufacturing processes release a high volume of greenhouse gas emissions that have steadily contributed to global warming. While many areas now have complex recycling programs to help ease the pollution associated with plastics, that will not be enough long-term to curb the environmental impact.
Conventional plastics are created through petrochemical processes, which essentially means that they are made from byproducts of oil. Some plastics also contain toxic additives that are released as they decompose, so there is pollution on both ends of the product cycle.
Bioplastics have been developed specifically to resolve some of these issues. Bioplastics are derived from plant sources and, in theory, will alleviate the environmental impact of multiple industries that utilize plastics. There are a number of plant sources that have been used in the development of bioplastics including corn, cane sugar, switchgrass, wood bark, and even potatoes and citrus peels. Because bioplastics are made from biological materials rather than fossil fuels, they do not deplete an already limited natural resource.
A common misconception is that all bioplastics are biodegrable. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and some bioplastics actually release methane—another greenhouse gas—as they decompose. Since many bioplastics are nearly indistinguishable from conventional plastics to the untrained eye, there can be confusion in the recycling process. If the two plastics mix in the process, it can diminish the quality of the recycled products. Clearly, bioplastic still has its flaws, but offers exciting potential for a more sustainable future.
Plastic welding will play a prominent role in the development and production of bioplastics. The packaging industry already relies heavily on ultrasonic welders to create seamless, airtight seals on food products. The medical field also requires detailed welding to protect medical products from contamination and keep them sterile. Bioplastics are already making their way into these industries, especially in venues—sporting arenas, restaurants, hospitals—that go through a high volume of plastic cups and packaging.
Bioplastics have also been introduced into large-scale manufacturing. Toyota uses plastics that are partially plant-based in the construction of some vehicle interior components. AT&T and other consumer electronic companies have introduced bioplastics into the manufacturing process for cell phones, tablets, and computers. This is certainly a step in the right direction, as the short lifespan of many of these consumer electronics have resulted in an enormous amount of waste that releases toxins and will take years to decompose. If even a percentage of these electronic devices can become biodegradable and more eco-friendly, it will go a long way towards making the technology sector more sustainable.
While bioplastics have certainly not been perfected, their development is an encouraging step for manufacturers looking to go green. Plastics have found their way into nearly every major industry, so more sustainable options will have wide-ranging effects on our world’s future.