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© Image 2014 Metabolix
How bio-engineered plastic degrades © 2014 Metabolix
Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oilscorn starch, or microbiota.  Bioplastic can be made from agricultural by-products and also from used plastic bottles and other containers using microorganisms. In contrat, common plastics are fossil-fuel plastics (also called petrobased polymers), which are derived from petroleum or natural gas

Applications of Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used for disposable items, such as packaging, crockery, cutlery, pots, bowls, and straws. They are also often used for bags, trays, fruit and vegetable containers and blister foils, egg cartons, meat packaging, vegetables, and bottling for soft drinks and dairy products.

These plastics are also used in non-disposable applications including mobile phone casings, carpet fibers, insulation car interiors, fuel lines, and plastic piping. New electroactive bioplastics are being developed that can be used to carry electric current. In these areas, the goal is not biodegradability, but to create items from sustainable resources.

© Text 2016 Wikipedia

Plastic types

MaterialBasis & BiodegradabilityDescription
PET

Basis: Mostly Petrobased, some companies can produce it biologically from sugar.

Biodegradable: Biodegradable: At least one species of bacterium can degrade PET with an  esterase  enzyme.

Polyethylene Terephthalate is a strong, lightweight plastic resin and form of polyester that closely resembles glass in clarity and takes colorants well. PET is commonly used in food packaging due to its strong barrier properties against water vapor, dilute acids, gases, oils and alcohols. Under the name polyester it is widely used textiles.

HDPE

Basis: Petrobased, some companies claim to produce it biologically from sugar

Biodegradable: no, it can take centuries to decompose.

High Density Polyethylene is a rigid, tough and strong resin of natural milky color. HDPE has very good stress crack resistance as well as high impact and melt strength. HDPE is appropriate for personal care, beverages, food and chemicals. It lends itself particularly well to blow molding.

PVC

Basis: Petrobased

Biodegradable: There are a variaty of fungi / mushrooms that  effectively degrade plasticized PVC

Polyvinyl Chloride is a widely-used plastic. PVC containers offer clarity, durability and chemical resistance. They are primarily used for household goods such as soaps and cleaners, chemicals and personal care items. The material is often used for pipelines in the water and sewer industries because of its inexpensive nature and flexibility.

PP

Basis: Petrobased, maybe soon Biological

Biodegradable: Microbial communities isolated from soil samples mixed with starch have been shown to be capable of degrading polypropylene

Polypropylene is a thermoplastic polymer used in a wide variety of applications, including food packaging, textiles, laboratory equipment, automotive components, and polymer banknotes. It is unusually resistant to many chemical solvents, bases and acids. It is much less brittle than HDPE. Polypropylene has very good resistance to fatigue, so that most plastic living hinges, such as those on flip-top bottles (Tic Tacs), are made from this material. The higher melting point of PP allows it to be used for plastic items such as medical products (withstand the heat in an autoclave) and dishwasher safe containers.  

PS

Basis: Petrobased

Biodegradable: Polystyrene is very slow to biodegrade. Mealworms have been shown to be able to eat polystyrene and degrade it within their larval gut

Polystyrene comes in many shapes and forms, from foam egg cartons and meat trays, to soup bowls and salad boxes. It protects against moisture and maintains its strength and shape even after long periods of time.

It is often know as Styrofoam or Styropor.

PLA

Basis: Biological

Biodegradable: There are bacteria that can degrade PLA, also one has extracted enzymes that can do so

Polylactide is a corn-based resin. The production of PLA uses 68 percent less fossil fuel resources than traditional plastics and it is the world's first greenhouse-gas-neutral polymer. The properties of PLA are well suited for the injection stretch blow molding process used to form bottles and jars. PLA requires significantly less energy to mold into plastic containers and it can be shaped into a variety of bottles, containers, trays, film and other packaging. It's also on of the most used filaments for 3D printing.

Production

At one time, bio-plastics were too expensive for consideration as a replacement for petroleum-based plastics. However, the lower temperatures needed to process bio-plastics and the more stable supply of biomass combined with the increasing cost of crude oil make bio-plastics' prices  more competitive with regular plastics.

Bio-plastics can be synthesised from various biological sources: 

 

Different source materials and chemical pathways to produce Green Propylene © 2013 Virat Venkataraman, Beroe, Inc.

Genetic modification (GM) is also a challenge for the bioplastics industry. None of the currently available bioplastics – which can be considered first generation products – require the use of GM crops, although GM corn is the standard feedstock. Looking further ahead, some of the second generation bioplastics manufacturing technologies under development employ the "plant factory" model, using genetically modified crops or genetically modified bacteria to optimise efficiency.

Companies related to SynBio 

  • Cambridge (US) based Metabolix produces PHA biopolymers in microorganisms. Thus, they are biodegradable by similar organisms present in environments such as soil and water.
  • Gevo is producing isobutanol in yeast cells. Isobutanol is a platform molecule that can be chemically transformed to work as jet fuel, plastics, fibers, and specialty chemicals. The value added properties of isobutanol, including high energy, low vapor pressure, compatibility with engines and compatibility with petrochemical infrastructure, also make it an attractive gasoline blendstock.

What do you think?

About the authors

View full profile Lena Asai from London & Tokyo

I study Design (BA) at Goldsmiths, University of London. I am a member of London Biohackspace, the UK’s first community lab, and is interested in exploring the relationship between art, design, and synthetic biology. I am participating in iGEM 2015 in the
Community Labs Track representing London Biohackspace. My team is developing a library of yeast strains for beer brewers. Feel free to drop me a message!

View full profile Jérôme Lutz from Berlin & Munich, Germany

I like to share the great things I discover daily while researching and working in the field of Synthetic Biology.

When I talk to people about it, they often refer to Science Fiction. However, when I send them links to this wiki and they read through those pages, they start understanding that this is real and it's happening right now.

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