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A Look at a Possible Breakthrough Discovery in Bioplastics

A research team is fine-tuning their innovation using computer technology to accelerate what they are learning in the lab, as well as looking for industrial partners that make packaging to manufacture the polymer.

IBM and Stanford University say they have found a way to create biodegradable plastics from plants that’s cheaper than existing, somewhat similar technology, while providing other unique benefits. Biodegradable plastics, sourced from renewable feedstocks like corn or sugar cane, are not a new concept, but they are far from perfect—often taking time to break down and or tough to produce economically at scale. 

But the race is on to find better ways, with the goal being to convert the manufacture of convenient commodities from an environmental and economic liability to an asset, reducing dependency on expensive, polluting fossil fuels and cutting landfill burden.

The IBM-Stanford team says their technology will provide multiple economic and environmental benefits for manufacturers and the solid waste industry.

“We have created catalysts that help accelerate reactions so we can make polymers faster, and the technology will enable us to create different polymers with different catalysts. For instance we could create a polymer for high-density versus low-density polyethylene,” says Gavin Jones, an IBM researcher involved in the study.  

There are two major issues with existing technology; it typically uses metal-based catalysts, which remain in plastics, adding processing costs. Additionally, some biodegradable plastics take years to break down. The plastic used in the new study will decompose in about 90 days if it is composted and within a year should it end up on a landfill says Jones. And there will be no need to remove metals, which will eliminate steps and time in manufacturing while saving money.

What next?

“We feel the process is a vast improvement on processes out there and that it works well enough to prove. But we want to further improve on it and to work with partners to fine-tune to their specific manufacturing standards,” says Jones.

This is not IBM’s first plastics project. Among the corporation’s earlier work is a focus on making polymers to develop computer chips. And they have been partnering with Stanford to find plastic breakthroughs for almost 15 years.

“We chose Stanford for their proximity [our lab is in San Jose, Calif.] and because our interests are the same,” says Jones.

Meanwhile, other brands and stakeholders are working to develop and commercialize 100 percent biobased plastics, and they are incentivized. Analysts project a 68.25 percent CAGR growth in biobased plastics from 2014 to 2019.

Biodegradable does not necessarily mean environmentally friendly

"Shifting from conventional plastics to biobased creates a shift in the impacts [to potential agricultural impacts such as depleting resources]. This means that biobased plastics are not a silver bullet solution. So when you claim a feedstock is renewable you have to show you are managing production in a way that is more sustainable,” says Erin Simon, Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance, deputy director for Sustainability R&D, World Wildlife Fund. 

“The challenge is to … analyze the trade-offs, figure out what has the least impact, and pair it with technologies that can work at scale,” says Simon. The alliance, whose members include Nike, Coca-Cola, Danone, Ford, Heinz, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, along with the World Wildlife Fund, support biotech investors in addressing these sustainability issues. 

Others who are watching the rapidly evolving bioplastics niche are also optimistically cautious.

California’s take

California’s Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery has studied this arena, and reported on considerations for bioplastics production in their state.

In their analysis, they say, “While producing bioplastics … may offer some environmental benefits, currently the potential value is overshadowed by end-of-life concerns,” though they added brand owners’ support “fosters promising outcomes.”

The fast-compiling research on emerging technologies is preliminary. Logistics such as recovery of used bioplastic products needs to be carefully thought out. And because the new products and technologies vary, their benefits and costs must be evaluated on an individual basis.

IBM believes their innovation, among the latest of plant-based plastics projects in the works, could eventually make an impact on a large scale.

“Hopefully in the end this will give manufacturers options to create more goods out of biodegradable plastics. Our vision would be for biodegradable plastics to someday be mainstreamed. This would mean more [plastics would be] compostable rather than have to go through the recycling process or be landfilled,” says Jones.

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