I while ago I wrote a quick piece exploring the use of algae to produce bacterial-based bioplastics. While this blog tends to focus more on the academic side of research, it's important to appreciate that in order to gain large-scale importance, research does at some point need to venture out of a purely academic environment and delve into the world of companies and industrial research.
Ivan Goloborodko is one of a team of three people from Sydney currently looking into a more commercial and large-scale application of bioplastics; the production of bioplastic bottles. I got in touch with him to talk more about this project, as I'm always fascinated by how science can be applied in real world situations once it leaves the lab.
Ivan's bioplastic unfortunately doesn't come from bacteria; instead, it is made from a non-food cellulose-based blend of biopolymers. The cellulose used for the bioplastic bottle product comes mostly from waste products of the timber and paper industry to avoid any conflict with food-products. The issue of competing spaces for food vs. biomass for industrial products is one that Ivan's team is very much aware of (and it can be a real political issue when less-developed countries divert necessary crop farmland towards producing industrial biomass rather than food), which is why their raw materials consist of waste products. They've also been looking into ways of recycling the plastic bottles after use, to try and keep as much of the biomaterial as possible in useful circulation.
The use of waste materials also reduces the nitrogen and phosphorous load of the bioplastic, which came up in discussions on the previous post. Ivan pointed out that the problem of 'peak phosphorous' could best be solved by new projects to recover phosphorous from waste products such as urine, as well as reducing the amount of unrecycled phosphorous taken up from the environment.
As well as the affect on the environment, new bioproducts also need to be tested for human health, a bottle for storing liquids needs to be as safe and sterile as possible. The product has been found to have no long or short term effects on human health, and Ivan hopes that future materials might even be able to have positive health effects. While I'm not quite certain how that would be managed, there is certainly more uncertainty about the general safety of PET plastics for long-term liquid containers compared to the inert bioplastic.
While it may be possible to replace up to 90% of current plastics with bioplastic, replacing petroleum-based products will always be a bit of an uphill struggle at first, both because of the price and availability and because commercial plastic already has the intrastructure and money in place. However the development of projects to increase the use and commercial appeal of bioplastics, even in small ways such as spreading the love of bioplastic bottles, are a great way of taking important scientific work out of the lab and making it publically applicable.