Bioplastic - Better Living Through Green Chemistry ?

The New York Times recently had an editorial on Samsung's "Corn Phone", which is being heavily promoted as environmentally friendly as the casing is made from bioplastic. Somewhat to my surprise, they point out that it is neither - firstly because the bioplastic is made from corn (and is thus contributing to the problems that corn based ethanol is causing) and secondly because phones have become nearly throw away items that are rarely recycled.
The electronics industry has been a major polluter, from the manufacturing end to the landfill. The dizzying pace at which consumer electronics become obsolete (What, you're still using that old phone?) compounds the problem. And increasingly rich countries are offloading the disposing, and often the incinerating, of phones and computers to poorer countries.

Unfortunately Samsung's new cellphone relies on a flawed equation: corn equals green. It is really time to throw out this formula for good. Bioplastic derived from corn requires special handling in recycling, and the difficulty of those processes makes them energy inefficient. Bioplastic also creates another market for corn, a much smaller market than the ethanol market, but growing nonetheless. New industrial demands for corn are driving up world food prices and are increasing the pressure to convert more nonagricultural land to corn production.

The truly green solution for electronics makers is to close the loop between manufacturing and recycling: reusing the plastics we so quickly and happily toss away to make new cellphones.

While Samsung's phone doesn't seem to have passed the "greenwash" test, peak oil poses a problem for plastic production for which bioplastic could be one potential solution, so in this post I'll have a look at what is happening in the industry and how our desire for plastics could perhaps be satisfied in a post oil world.
Plastic and peak oil

Chemicals and plastics are an integral part of peak oil concerns, as oil is the primary raw material used in their production, leading to the conclusion that as we pass the peak the shrinking availability and rising price of oil will cause a reduction in supply of these products.

There are 3 basic approaches to dealing with this scenario in a positive way:

1. Substitution: Use other materials - cardboard or paper packaging for example, or going back to using metal eating utensils instead of disposable plastic ones. Many other items currently made with plastic can also be made with wood, glass or metal (or even popcorn).

2. Recycling: Some plastics can be recycled - or converted back to oil for that matter, though the net energy benefit of this is debatable. Plastic recycling is already widely practiced though we have a long way to go before all recyclable plastics reach the correct destination. Recycling plastic not only reduces the amount of feedstock required to make the material, it also reduces the energy required in manufacturing by around 70%.

3. Bioplastics: Use carbohydrates to create plastics instead of hydrocarbons, an endeavour which was historically known as "chemurgy".

By and large, substitution would often seem to be a good thing in terms of reducing the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills (and the number of nurdles floating around in the oceans), though there are drawbacks like the extra effort and cost required to make objects out of materials that can't simply be injection moulded the way plastics can.

As a result, while substitution and recycling will often be the best way of dealing with the decline in availability of oil as a feedstock for plastic manufacture, we will likely still want to make new quantities of plastic each year - which leads us to bioplastics.

Bioplastic in Context

At this point bioplastics still comprise just a tiny fraction of the overall market, though one growing at an impressive rate of over 20% per year. The European Bioplastics Association says 1.5 million tonnes of bioplastics will be manufactured annually by 2011.

In comparison, according to the NZ plastic industry, 150 million tonnes each year of petroleum based plastics are produced (estimates for total production vary wildly unfortunately - BusinessWeek recently quoted a number of 500 million tons, while Biopact quotes a number of 200 million tonnes).

Plastic production is estimated to consume around 5% of global oil production each year (again, estimates vary quite a lot, and depend on if just feedstock is counted or if the energy to produce the plastic is also included) which represents the largest use outside the transport and energy sectors.

Developments in Bioplastic

Bioplastic developments have been appearing in the news with great regularity in recent years - The Economist recently noted that the number of patents granted for industrial biotechnology now exceeds 20,000 per year - with the rising price of oil increasing interest in them.

While bioplastic is often considered "green", this isn't necessarily true. Even if we ignore the problems associated turning food into packaging (in the case of corn based bioplastics), there are still many forms of bioplastic which aren't biodegradable. There is also the energy required to power farm machinery used in growing biomass feedstock, to produce fertilisers and pesticides, to transport biomass to processing plants, to process the biomass and ultimately to produce the bioplastic - most of which currently comes from non-renewable sources (though this could eventually be remedied, in time).

The best approach for dealing with the limits on bioplastic production (besides the substitution and recycling options) is similar to the approaches Amory Lovins talks about for dealing with the biofuels problem - redesign products so they need less bioplastic, and produce the bioplastic by harvesting from polyculture, perennial crops like switchgrass grown on non-agricultural land.

Designer Phillippe Starck, a recent high profile convert to green thinking (dubbing all his previous work "unnecessary") recently explained his choice of environmentally unfriendly polycarbonate as the material for a new chair design, which should give you an idea of some of the trade-offs currently facing designers considering alternatives to plastics:

Wired: Recently, you have begun to look at the environmental impact of your designs. How does a plastic chair fit in?

Starck: The stupidity of the ecological movement is that people kill trees for wood. It's ridiculous. The best ecological strategy is to make products of a very high creative quality, so you can keep them for three generations. I prefer to make a very good chair in the best polycarbonate than make any shit in wood that will be in the trash one year later.

Wired: Why not use recycled plastic?

Starck: It's a little joke of a material. You can do almost nothing with it. And I also refuse bioplastic, which comes from something that people can eat. Scientists agree that we have a real food problem, a famine approaching. It's a crime against humanity to take something you can eat and make a chair — or use it as gas for your SUV.

There are also some concerns about greenhouse gas emissions, though these seem questionable.

Some examples of bioplastic producers and uses include:

* US company Metabolix, manufacturer of a biodegradable bioplastic called Mirel, has announced that they have genetically engineered a way to generate "significant amounts" of bioplastic by growing it in directly in the fast growing perennial plant switchgrass. Metabolix is also looking to use a technology developed in Queensland to produce plastic from sugarcane (without affecting sucrose production) at a cost of $1 to $2 per kilogram.

* Mazda is looking to use cellulose based bioplastic in cars from 2013.

* Australian firm Plantic produces a biodegradable bioplastic from corn starch which is used in packaging, using a technology developed by the CSIRO.

* US firm NatureWorks (a subsidiary of agribusiness giant Cargill) has opened a factory in Nebraska, producing 140,000 tonnes of a biodegradable plastic known as PLA, using corn starch. Wal*mart is a major customer, using the material for food containers.

* Dow (the world's largest producer of conventional plastics), is building a factory in Brazil that will produce polyethylene using ethanol made from sugarcane. It is due to open in 2011 and will produce 350,000 tonnes of the material a year. The Times quotes a Dow spokesman as saying that using sugarcane to make polyethylene (rather than the usual naptha-based crude oil or natural gas) is economic with oil prices even when they are at $45 per barrel.

* Brazilian company Braskem is also aiming to produce 200,000 tonnes of polyethylene a year from ethanol.

* NEC has developed a recyclable bioplastic which remembers its shape

* Researchers at New York's Polytechnic University have genetically engineered a bioplastic that can be converted into biodiesel after it has been used, resulting in funding from DARPA and interest from the US military.

* A process developed at the University of Waikato in New Zealand will allow animal waste like blood meal and feathers to be turned into a biodegradable plastic.

* Researchers at Iowa State University and Cornell are looking at using nanoclay particles and nanotechnology techniques to make bioplastics that biodegrade faster and have improved mechanical properties (such as strength).

* Novomer is trying to commercialise a process developed at Cornell for producing bioplastic from carbon dioxide and orange peels (a rare useful example of carbon sequestration).

* Canada's National Research Council is researching the use of bacteria that produce bioplastic from maple syrup and sap, harnessing the large surplus of syrup.

* Fabric manufacturer Interface is looking to make plastic from potatoes in Maine.

* Japanese firm NTA is looking to produce bioplastic from Kenaf grown in Queensland.

* The rising price of polyurethane is causing some surfboard manufacturers to turn to plant based biofoam.


The 5% of oil consumption that is related to plastic production seems to be a form of low hanging fruit that we could dispense with fairly easily, with a combination of mandating the use of recyclable plastics and/or bioplastics and making sure that materials are recycled wherever possible, while also looking to be more efficient in our usage of the stuff in the first place.

Bioplastics aren't a silver bullet in this respect but they are a useful tool for helping to eliminate one form of oil usage, so I think they should be encouraged and promoted - particularly biodegradable versions manufactured from non-food crops or waste.

Cross-posted from Our Clean Energy Future.

Good stuff.

It's probably worth mentioning - Gav would know, but it's not clear from the text - that what is commonly meant by the word "recycling" or "recyclable" and what most of us have in mind by those words are different things.

More formally, we speak of "recycling", where the thing is turned into the same kind of product again, and "downcycling", where it's turned into a different kind of product, one which is neither recyclable nor downcyclable.

So for example glass is entirely recyclable. You can take a bunch of glass bottles, melt them down and make new glass bottles out of them - and do it endlessly.

Where the various plastics, most are not recyclable - or when they are, they're usually not actually recycled, but downcycled. Plastic bottles are not turned into more plastic bottles, but into rubbish bins and park benches and so on - and those rubbish bins and park benches when they break can't be recycled or downcycled, but go to landfill.

This difference in the way the things are processed is not always clear to us as we chuck our stuff into the "recycling" bins. Basically, paper & cardboard, glass, tins and aluminium are recycled, plastics are downcycled.

So when you say that we could zero out the oil input to plastics by recycling, that's true - but it'd have to be different kinds of plastics to those commonly used today. Otherwise we just end up with a heap of plastics in landfill, and still need more oil going in.

But even with it all being trashed, I don't see peak oil as a real threat to plastics the way it is to transport or energy. That's because so much of our plastics use is completely unnecessary (40% to packaging, for example, and much of that multiple layers on one product), and the small amount which is necessary can be done with a relatively small amount of oil - compared to how much is used for transport and energy.

I mean, changing packaging on products is a lot easier than (say) building enough windmills to replace all the fossil fuel-fired power stations or building railways everywhere.

Good point - I should have mentioned that in the article.

Some months ago I found that my plastic recycling tub had been smashed due to UV exposure and rough handling by the boyos on the local Council's collection truck. So I rang the Council to get a new one. In passing I asked, "What should I do with the old one, is it recyclable?"

To which the answer was, "Well theoretically yes," (it's stamped *Recycle 5*). "But we won't collect the old ones because they're too big."

The advice was to cut it up and send it to landfill...


I hope you found a way of getting it to a recycling centre...

I always wondered why one would recycle bottles (such as the ubiquitious standard beer bottle) when one wash them and refill them. Does anyone understand the economicS?

I always wondered why one would recycle bottles (such as the ubiquitious standard beer bottle) when one wash them and refill them. Does anyone understand the economicS?

It is difficult to ensure that all foreign objects (cigarette ends, nails, insect bodies, mould, chemical residues etc) are removed on the wash line well enough to give you a food grade container, for this reason glass is often downcycled into things like road paving aggregate, or fiberglass insulation.

It's somewhat as John Milton said.

If you wash them, it uses a lot of water and energy, and you need some good quality control to make sure nothing's left.

If you smash them up and melt them, it uses no water but a lot of energy, and you can then safely reuse them, any crap left in them will just burn up at glass-melting temperatures.

Also, each company produces or orders its own kind of bottles or jars. For example the Monbulk jam jar is a different shape to the Homebrand jam jar. That means if they wanted to reuse rather than recycle, they'd have to sort out all the different jars and bottles. Easier just to smash them up, melt them down and reshape them.

Of course if we had just a dozen different standard sizes and shapes then it'd be easier to sort and thus reuse them, but there you go. All along the chain of production-use-disposal there are opportunities to step in to make reduce, reuse or recycle easier; at the moment we choose to only step in at the end. That's why we have recycling instead of reusing, and downcycling instead of recycling.

If we stepped in at the beginning of the production-use-disposal chain it'd be easier overall, but then you have to argue with and regulate a zillion different companies who will argue a moral right to have a slightly different-shaped bottle, and so on.

It seems like you're saying that, because fossil energy is cheap, water is kinda expensive, and human attention is very expensive, it's cheaper to use lots of energy to mash glass up and melt it on a large scale.

In the near future we expect fossil energy to be very expensive, water to be kinda expensive, and human attention to be cheap. So, it should become cheaper to use lots of human attention to wash glass and reuse it without mashing and melting.

You are 100% correct.

The excuses always go: We have different shaped bottles, different types of plastic etc.......

Why?? There is no reason retail products need anything except standardised containers, plastic formulations etc [anyone guess why homebrew beer barrels have wide diameter screw tops..?]

Ban Marketing, and everything will go back to brown paper and cardboard packaging.

So, it should become cheaper to use lots of human attention to wash glass and reuse it without mashing and melting.

Along with the human attention to wash out the glasses, will come the human attention to grow, proces and cook the stuff that goes in them at the household level.

I have been home brewing beer now for about 8 years. I have used the same set of glass beer bottles throughout this time and have only broken one or two. I guess that this is an advantage of localised/small scale systems, where items can be reused without any significant processing, energy or water requirements.

It wasn't that long ago when homemade jams, chutneys etc were commonly produced at home (and it probably won't be that far off that this will be commonplace again) using whatever glassware that was available. I guess it comes back to our current economic model. Simply reusing an item, or producing goods at home does not add any value to the formal economy, where as recycling 'adds' to the economy at several points.

I remember the days when old vegemite jars (glass, not plastic) were frequently used as glasses for drinks in a lot of Australian houses.

I suspect in some country towns that is still true today.

Yes, I remember this too. I also remember cake stalls etc as a kid where trifle and other goodies were sold in washed out yoghurt containers or anything else was that available. Probably can't do that any more due to health regulations.

I have thought about this previously but haven't put any effort into calculating it but I wonder what the energy consumption difference is between a packet of store bought biscuits versus biscuits baked at home. We try to cook a batch of biscuits or a cake every week or so. Obviously this saves on plastic wrapping, transportation etc, but most if not all of the ingredients come from the supermarket and I would imagine a home electric oven is less efficient than a factory one.

Any thoughts?

I've got no idea which is more energy efficient.

I bake bread at home every now and then but I'd be surprised if it was any more efficient than buying mass produced bread.

I have thought about this previously but haven't put any effort into calculating it but I wonder what the energy consumption difference is between a packet of store bought biscuits versus biscuits baked at home.

Just the production, the bakery will be more efficient than you can be. It's just that they have bigger ovens and so on.

But most supermarkets don't produce their own biscuits, they're made in a factory somewhere, often overseas. Factoring in the transport and the packaging turns the balance in favour of the home-baked stuff.

Back in the early 70’s one of the topics in my studies was Life Cycle Energy Analysis (LCEA). One case study was on Milk Bottles which at the time in the UK were all made of glass and doorstep delivered early each morning with the Milkman taking away the empties.

At that time it was estimated that each bottle had a life of 12-14 deliveries before it had to be sent for recycling. Repeated mechanised handling and washing took the shine of the bottle making people think it was dirty, so time to melt it down.

Hard to remember when the majority of milk bottles being glass and delivered daily ended but something to do with the rise of cheap fridges, the supermarket and imports of EU milk in cartons.

I was in London (50 / 60’s) so our Milk Floats were all electric driven, big batteries recharged at the distribution depot. As the deliveries were made very early in the morning that was a great benefit due to their being relatively silent, although the bottles bashing about still woke people up. An added benefit of the early mornings for those of us who needed the pocket money was that we could help the Milky and still get to school on time.

In norway all beer and most soda bottles are washed and refilled that way, both glass and plastic. All beer bottles are the exact same shape no matter what brewery it is from, but for soda there are a couple of varieties, one for Coca Cola and one for everyone else I think. The last 5-10 years more and more thin-walled single use bottles have appeared, but most is still for reuse. I don't know how many times a typical bottle gets reused, but occasionally you get one that has deep scourmarks in the glass all around it, presumably from interaction with other bottles and metal parts at the fillingstation.

Regarding economics, it is my understanding that this scheme would not be economical without the tax placed on single use bottles. There was talk about removing said tax a few years ago, but it didn't happen. Lately it has become common to buy beer and soda in cans aswell, something you hardly ever saw just a few years ago. That's because the tax on single use bottles depends on the degree of recycling. The higher the ratio between bottles sold and bottles returned, the lower the tax.

So by not 'closing the loop' downcycled plastics have no long term future since unless the input feedstock comes from a renewable resource...

...and in the very long term we just end up using landfill as an expensive carbon sink...


Well, in principle all plastics are recyclable, whatever they are. It's just that some take a lot of energy, water, labour and time to recycle, and others not so much.

It's just that some processes aren't carried out because we don't think it's worth the trouble.

In the Third World, already people are mining landfills for their materials.

And in some countries, the stuff doesn't even make it to landfills. When labour is expensive and resources are cheap, we have landfills; when labour is cheap and resources are expensive, we have this guy:

There is perhaps a happy middle ground between New York's Fresh Kills landfill, and this poor bloke dragging those bottles along. We can seek that - maybe something to write to your MP about.

"...there are still many forms of bioplastic which aren't biodegradable."

Could you elaborate on this, please? In terms of time, what exactly do you mean by biodegradable? Biodegradable over 100 years? Over 1,000 years? Or I can simply chuck biodegradable bioplastics into my composting bin along with all my food scraps and have the plastic be ready to be spread around my garden the next year? Finally, any ideas/lists of which bioplastics are biodegradable?

While I haven't got the time to go into it very far, I would point your attention to a Book, 'Greenplastics; An introduction to the new science of biodegradable plastics', by E.S. Stevens, 2002.

In the introduction, he says;

Part One describes the growing concern over the environmental effects of using plastics in ever-increasing amounts. It also introduces the chemical nature of synthetic polymers and gives a brief account of the environmental degradability of plastics.

Part Two describes naturally occuring polymers as alternative plastics feedstocks, contrasting them with synthetic polymers. It also introduces the emerging bioplastics technologies. The book ends with directions for making cast-film samples of bioplastics using nothing more than commonly available items. The preparations vividly illustrate the potential of bioplastics, and are easily adapted for use in instructional laboratories.

Great Topic, Gav!

I would also note that while we've grown up in a 'Throwaway Culture', throwing away both precious and toxic materials in products made cynically to be short-lived and repurchased, the mass production of objects that you CAN just toss on the ground and will do no harm, fit right into nature again, this could be a step back into practises that might seem primitive, but in fact are much more connected to our world than current habits. As McDonough and Braungart say in 'Cradle to Cradle', the things we make should be easily separable, to return into the waste streams of nature, or those of technology. When we've made a composite with an impossible combination of both, we've wasted energy and materials that can no longer be available for reuse.

As with the glass bottle topic mentioned above, I think the energy costs of making these will return us to refillables, while the insertion of Butts, Fliptops and so on will probably prove to be a solvable problem.


One of the links in the post talks about Braungart's green chemistry work.

I didn't mention cradle to cradle / design for disassembly in the post, but it is an important concept whenever you intend to recycle things.

One of the problems for plastic materials (vs wood / glass / metals) in this regard is the downcycling vs recycling issue identified by kiashu above.

For those who haven't read it, the "Cradle to cradle" book is pretty cool - not only is the content important, but the book itself is made of recyclable plastic - I took mine to the beach once and took it surfing and left it on the sand in the sun - it survived the experience completely intact, though it took a while to get all the sand out of it.

Stevens also has a web site :

Couldn't find a copy on the net anywhere though (after a very cursory search), so you'll have to buy it if you want to do some in-depth study...

It depends on the bioplastic as to how quickly it biodegrades.

One of the concerns about the PLA produced by NatureWorks, for example, is that you have to put it into a biodigester (of course, the silver lining to this is you capture the biogas and can use it for power generation or other purposes).

There is a fair amount of detail at the Wikipedia link as well as the book mentioned above. In general, ytou could assume a biodegradabale bioplastic put into a compost bin or landfill would decompose in months to years, depending on the amount of bacteria around, average temperature etc etc

Hi Big Gav,

I'm having a hard time balancing your suggestion that:

"Bioplastics aren't a silver bullet in this respect but they are a useful tool for helping to eliminate one form of oil usage, so I think they should be encouraged and promoted - particularly biodegradable versions manufactured from non-food crops or waste.

With Starck's quote that:

~Starck: ... And I also refuse bioplastic, which comes from something that people can eat. Scientists agree that we have a real food problem, a famine approaching. It's a crime against humanity to take something you can eat and make a chair — or use it as gas for your SUV.~

Suggesting pursuing bioplastics while quoting a condemnation of them is, well what?

Beyond that, most of the bioplastic feedstocks posted are also foodstocks, and there is no mention of (bio)plastic packaging demand destruction through transition to durable packaging (glass/porcelian/fabric) or population reductions. How do you feel about developing alternatives to (bio)plastic and how does the scenario change with population reductions?

Not to mention it's not a alternative to oil based products. to even grow enough corn or any other crop to make bio-plastics you will need fossil fuel based fertilizer, pesticides, and ground water pumped by said fossil fuels.

This is of course putting aside the whole issue of top soil depletion. which puts the idea of bio-plastics in a light akin to genocide.

I find it really irritating when posters throw around terms like food, crimes against humanity, and famine when they don't fit the facts, at least as I see them. These terms should have real definitions that fit the real world and not just be propaganda words to try to intimidate opposing views.

Food sounds simple but it is not. Corn is not human food for the most part but animal food. Just because posters refuse to accept this does not make it less true. When corn is fed to animals there is a large waste of energy. In a Post Peak Oil world where energy is at a premium, why is it a "crime against humanity" to put corn to its best use?

When exaggerated terms like "crime against humanity" are used willy nilly to intimidate without the any basis in fact nothing is being proved but that the poster is ignorant. Those who produce corn and its related products are also part of humanity. They benefit from the process, but apparently the consumers of corn products are more a part of humanity than the corn product producers.

This is preposterous.

This fantasy humanity that is the victim of ethanol for example seems to largely be in foreign countries. The fact that corn is not exported primarily for human food but for animal food is ignored. Instead it is implied that people are starving because that can't buy corn. It is rubbish lies. They are starving because they are poor and can't buy anything.

In any case the idea that foreigners starving or not should have a say in American energy policy implies that non-citizens have a vote, or at least a veto, over Americans in American affairs. It is ridiculous.

Other countries have a right to run their affairs as they see fit and so do we. If they refuse to control their population it is beyond reason to require Americans to do things against American self interest in order that foreigners can continue down the same dead end path to destruction and death.

Americans can not bail all those who have empty stomachs any more than the starving can bail us out of our energy predicament. Each country has to deal with the situation they find themselves in with the resources and initiative each has available.

To suggest otherwise, which we so often see in Global Think type posts at TOD, implies that Americans are obligated to others when then are not obligated to us. It is an impossible situation that leads to no solutions for either and therefore must be rejected.

Errr - what do you think happens to the animals that we feed the corn to ?

Are you a vegan ?

Most of that corn is fed to animals that eventually turn up on someone's dinner plate.

The more corn that gets turned into fuel (or plastic), the more expensive our food becomes.

This means the poorest people starve - hence descriptions like "genocide" and "crime against humanity".

Your closing remarks about americans not owing anyone anything are laughable too. If americans lived entirely on their domestic oil production, didn't have a enormous trade deficit and stopped invading countries with lots of oil (while killing hundreds of thousands of people so that they could control the aforesaid oil), then you might have a case.

But as it stands, everything you said is wrong.

I think the main problem with corn is that its being promoted as the life saving crop that can be turned into anything. The problem as i see it is not that its being used as animal feed, or ethanol or bioplastic, but that its seen as the only crop (according to congress), that can do all of these things. Thus, farmers are seeing the dollar signs and spreading the growing of corn everywhere, places where corn has no business being, like Kansas, Arizona, West Texas, Oklahoma, etc. Corn is a water hog and if you don't live someplace that gets copious amounts of rain, Corn will suck the ground dry, then you have to tap aquifers to keep it alive, taking valuable water away from other crops just to promote a crop that has no business being there. We need to break corn from its stranglehold on government and promote alternatives that make sense per locations, or atleast ensure that water levels are maintained in the US, because this sucking dry of our resources will only lead to more pain later on.

Corn is not human food for the most part but animal food.

But it need not be so. In 2007, about 750 of 1,077 million tonnes of coarse grains was maize. Of this, 624Mt went to livestock, and 250Mt to biofuels. [source, FAO] But it need not be so. As Gav points out, we then eat the livestock and its dairy and egg products.

In a Post Peak Oil world where energy is at a premium, why is it a "crime against humanity" to put corn to its best use?

We've not yet established what the "best use" of maize is. My reasoning is that people need bread before they need meat, and need meat before they need fuel to burn for transport, and need fuel before they need plastics.

Those who produce corn and its related products are also part of humanity. They benefit from the process, but apparently the consumers of corn products are more a part of humanity than the corn product producers.

The consumers of corn products are more numerous than the producers. Typically in democracies we try to look after the interests of the many above those of the few. This is why we see things like countries fixing prices for bread and rice, or subsidising agriculture for the sake not of the farmers but of national food security.

This fantasy humanity that is the victim of ethanol for example seems to largely be in foreign countries. The fact that corn is not exported primarily for human food but for animal food is ignored. Instead it is implied that people are starving because that can't buy corn. It is rubbish lies. They are starving because they are poor and can't buy anything.

You don't seem to understand how the market works.

There is X amount of demand for all grains for direct human consumption. Then there is Y demand for grains for livestock, and Z demand for biofuels.

If X, Y or Z rise, then the price of grain overall rises. For example, if the price of maize goes up because of demand for biofuels, the people who were buying maize for livestock now switch to buying wheat - so the price of wheat goes up, too. Thus people eating wheat, people who never in their life chewed a single kernel of corn, find the price of bread gone up because of maize for biofuels.

That's the market. Things are connected. Nothing sits around by itself.

In any case the idea that foreigners starving or not should have a say in American energy policy implies that non-citizens have a vote, or at least a veto, over Americans in American affairs. It is ridiculous.

Being indifferent to famine in other countries caused by your own country's domestic policies is something which is a key contributor to the diplomatic problems the US has today. That is, you can decide you don't give a fuck about the world, but then don't be surprised when they hate you.

Of course, if you really think that countries should say and do nothing about each-other's policies, everyone should just look after themselves, then I imagine that if everyone stopped selling oil to the US tomorrow, if China and Japan stopped lending money to the US, then when US lights go out, the trucks stop carrying goods to your supermarkets and shops, and everyone goes bankrupt, you won't complain?

Americans can not bail all those who have empty stomachs any more than the starving can bail us out of our energy predicament.

The difficulty with that is that the agricultural policies of the US and EU are a key contributor to the hunger of hundreds of millions of people. Traditionally if you helped make a mess you help clean it up - that's why the US is still in Iraq, for example. If you don't want to clean up messes, don't make them.

Each country has to deal with the situation they find themselves in with the resources and initiative each has available.


so should the USA pay off the national debt and stop importing 2/3 of its' oil?

The key part of my closing suggestion is "particularly biodegradable versions manufactured from non-food crops or waste".

I agree with Starck that turning food into plastic is a very bad idea.

If you look at the developments I listed the one I'm most enthusiastic about is Metabolix' genetically engineered switchgrass which "grows" bioplastic and their process for turning sugarcae waste into bioplastic (of course, GE techniques aren't without risks either).

I think corn and potato based bioplastic should be phased out ASAP and sugar ethanol based ones should follow sometime later on.

As for the rest of Starck's quote, I included it to demonstrate some attitudes which need to be overcome - for now he wants to stick with petro-plastic, which will become more and more difficult to do - less so for a celebrity designer selling art-like objects to the rich admittedly.

His comment about making stuff which lasts 90 years also has some validity, even if his comments about wood don't.

As for alternatives to bioplastic, I thought I was clear in the post that substitution or recycling are preferable, while still seeing a niche for bioplastic. If its not made from food, and it biodegrades fairly quickly and safely, I don't have a problem with it.

Designer Phillippe Starck

"We don't have any future if we don't go into space. This world will explode in 4 billion years. We have time, but not so much."

I don't think I'd buy a used chair from this guy let alone a new one made of polycarbonate.

Yeah, I wasn't too impressed. As soon as he said that a wooden chair is sh!t and will probably just fall apart in a year, while his plastic one would be presumably both Appealing and Enduring in 3 Generations. I wonder how many fine dinners he's attended, seated on some beautiful wooden antiques? He should come up to Maine.. there are still folks making them to last up here.. which is part of why I came back.

His comments about wood are just stupid but I suspect his chairs will last 3 generations - they tend to be collectors items in certain social circles.

Nothing like a good wooden bench table and seats though - I suspect some of the pubs I've been to in England have woodwork that is more than a century old.

I suspect his chairs will last 3 generations - they tend to be collectors items in certain social circles.

Well, we can but hope you'r wrong. Examples of Stark designs:

I hope that I'm wrong (in general) about his stuff - he was completely right when he said all his previous work was "unnecessary".

But I thought the chair in question didn't look so bad - unlike the gnomes or the light shade above...

He makes a valid point about furniture. Quality wood furniture does last for the ages, but discount wood/chipboard furniture is essentially disposable (you have IKEA in Australia?). A plastic chair that's durable and has a design that lasts for the ages isn't all that bad in the grand scheme of things. That said, I'm skeptical about polycarbonate. It scratches easily, and polishing scratches out of plastic isn't easy.

The problem I have with plastics is that they pollute the earth in ways we really don't understand very well. Even though the chains can be broken down by sunlight to create a powder, the chains cannot be metabolized by bacteria or protozoa. There is some question about the effect of plastic micropowder on phytoplankton. If they get sick we're in real trouble.

Unlike many discarded materials, most plastics in common use do not biodegrade. Instead they "photodegrade," a process whereby sunlight breaks them into progressively smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers. In fact, the degradation eventually yields individual molecules of plastic, but these are still too tough for most anything—even such indiscriminate consumers as bacteria—to digest. And for the past fifty years or so, plastics that have made their way into the Pacific Ocean have been fragmenting and accumulating as a kind of swirling sewer in the North Pacific subtropical gyre.

I found the stories about the Pacific gyre quite chilling - its amazing what a mess we are making of the oceans.

Re plastic not being broken down by bacteria - that isn't strictly true - some plastic eating microbes have been discovered:

And on a semi-related note, a bacteria that turns toxins into plastic which I should have mentioned in the post:

Modern hi-tec plastic polymers are critical to our current level of civilization.

Bio-plastics do not come close to fulfilling the requirements.

Not to mention we can not grow our transportation fuels, grow petrochem inputs, and still grow FOOD. (oops I guess I just mentioned it didn't I)

PetroChem is 100 time more important than any other use for the goo.

That said I agree we need to do away with tons of plastic trinkets and the packaging they come in.


That said I agree we need to do away with tons of plastic trinkets and the packaging they come in.

What?! Are you saying this is not a good and proper use of our resources?!

What exactly are they?
Thanks to a revolutionary advance in plastic wishbone technology, making your wishes come true is a snap with our 99.999% realistic synthetic LUCKY BREAK® WISHBONES!


Yes, of course. We are very conscious about our global environment. Both the packaging and wishbones are recyclable. Thank you for asking.


I agree that plastics esp for various seal are probably critical to some things we make and want. However how much plastic do we really need ? For example I've been searching of a French Press coffee pot with no plastic parts. I've actually had a hard time finding one. It does not need to be made from plastics.

Instead of bioplastics I'd rather see us simply do away with most uses of plastics.

And once we are down to the few remaining use cases we can then focus on replacements if possible. I suspect that the properties of real plastic use cases don't lend themselves to replacement in critical uses. Teflon gaskets for example may not be 100% replaceable with alternatives.

I love the old brass stuff from the 1800's when brass was effectively the plastic of the time most of the stuff is beautiful. Carved stone and glass where also used where we used plastics. Also if we could figure out a renewable way to use it tortise shell is a fantastic material. Horn is another great one.

I'd cherish a horn comb if I owned one.

Worth remembering that large numbers perhaps the majority of world eat with their hands, in cultures with wonderful cuisine often associated with very much lower levels of chronic disease - e.g. vasculature-related diseases including diabetes, and colorectal and prostate cancers - and with exquisite table manners. Careful hand-washing and a disposable banana leaf are very hygienic.
Pity we can't grow bananas in my backyard.
It would be helpful to design long-life or recyclable essentials for, say, communication tools and cut-out the vast throw-away plastic garbage.

Modern hi-tec plastic polymers are critical to our current level of civilization.

Many of those people also live in warm climates and ride motorbikes without helmets. You can't make a modern helmet without plastic. I know people lived in cold climates before plastic, but natural fibers and down are poor performers for insulating clothing. Fur is good for winter clothes, but it's safe to say it's even less sustainable than synthetic fibers made from oil.

It's not as critical as, say, medical equipment, but we can certainly prioritize things like insulating fibers and crash helmets over more frivolous uses.

More energy or more pollution? , why ask why?
There are no answers to this.
We are all about to fall off the cliff and we worry plastic bags to death. Gee?

Lets see:
I use every one of my plastic bags to line garbage cans. not one is ever wasted.
When I run low, rare, I’d buy more.

I can not use plastic bag in my pickup bed, because 10 feet down the road they all turn into Parachutes.
but then my tiny 2 door roadster (Miata) I can not fit the 15 bags (paper) into the truck but the plastic always fits ,every single time, funny how others seem to think what is good for them must be good for me.

Then we learned, a few years back, that when they dig up the dumps (like in aluminum mining of retired, NY dumps sites) all the old food down there is not breaking down, and guess what , plastic helps the land fill break it down, because it allows air to enter the land fill.

So why worry it?

I buy lots of things online and notice that many boxes ,now are packed in crushed paper. It is a big trend.
It is a trend that will take care of itself, in the market place.

They banned plastic bags, in Seattle. So we take a box of 100 plastic bags each trip.
My bags are identical to the banned bags. Weak, cheap and very easy to buy.

The price will rise and all these things, will take car of themselves.

The corn lobby will fade in the future and all that jive will fade away when they can't afford the fertilizer anymore. (Do you think the subsidy will just keep increasing to pay for the energy inputs?, forever? ).

Those are my thoughts on this.


Excellent stuff!

If I might add to the mix, this chap has an interesting take on 're-use': - saw the film last week, and it highlights so many factors including:

- Existing 'regulations' and fixed mindsets (especially in the 'civilised' west) prevent innovation.

- Resource re-evaluation - in the Tsunami aftermath rebuild experiment, local kids were given 1 rupee per plastic bottle found. These were turned into 'bricks' to be used in conjunction with locally produced 'cement' to build a light airy 'earth-ship'.

- The people in the Tsunami disaster area were extremely traumatized, but also very open to the 'new' building technique, and local architects and builders were encouraged to adopt it.

It makes one think about ones whole world view and how attached to them people get!


Hello, I am new to this web site via Rob Hopkins's 'Transition Handbook,' which I read during vacation this summer. I live in a community that seems totally unaware of the issues of Peak Oil, so we will see if that changes.

I have been trying to understand better plastics and recycling issues over the past 6 months due to frustrations over not being able to truly recycle much of anything, particularly food packaging. We can only submit #1 and #2 plastics in my community, and those are just downcycled. really. I also read a lot at Environmental Working Group and other places about BPA in #7 plastic, and found that BPA plastic lines every can made in this country and abroad. Researchers have determined (in non-industry funded studies) that BPA is a toxin, even at low doses. Industry-funded studies have concluded the opposite, that BPA is perfectly 'safe.' The jury is out, things are in congressional committee, and the chemical companies will most likely play this one out the way Big Tobacco continues to play out their product. Meanwhile, I maintain my own pantry as best I can.

For me, the BPA issue highlights not just the peak oil/resource issues above, but the fact that petrochemical plastics production and use are poisonous at all levels...sourcing, use in food and consumer products (EVERYTHING is made of plastic), incineration and/or landfill presence, recycling, downcycling, you name it. Plastics are not inert, no matter what the industry sources would have you believe. Food wrapped in plastic absorbs the chemicals used to make the polymers, with unknown health effects. One body of research indicates these chemicals act as false estrogens and confuse our bodily processes for the worse. Once we use them, these materials endure in the environment and are really a bad use of a finite resource, if you think about it. Why should a plastic bag you use one time persist in the biosphere for 500 years? Why should we use these materials when they are essentially low-grade poisons accumulating in our both systems and in the greater biosphere?

The above post is a great summary of current efforts to come up with replacement materials, but I question the use of big ag corn for anything. I really think ADM, Monsanto, and others see the writing on the wall and are trying to retool for a new era, but unfortunately with their old model of petrochemical fertilizers, chemicals for production, and lack of a permaculture/organic orientation. We fundamentally need to develop true 'green chemistry' on a global basis.

Also, if we work toward more local models of food production, all of this packaging won't be needed as food will not have to travel as far. The globalization piece creates issues of storage and a need for an industrialized food chain that many argue is not good for us or the planet. As an organic buyer and locavore, I have to say most industrial food doesn't taste good or very much like locally grown food.

Finally, laws about packaging and design need to change to the cradle-to-cradle orientation. No one should be producing anything for which there isn't some recycling mechanism, full stop. If it means streamlining shapes, changing laws (for example medical waste is a huge problem, but many materials are used out of legal obligation), and using renewable bioplastics, then that is what we need to do. We also need to make sure chemical companies are not writing these laws.

There's a lot more data about these issues, but this is where I am with it right now.


I agree with your comments about green chemistry and cradle to cradle manufacturing - both are important areas, but I was trying to stay on topic and just talk about bioplastics as an alternative to oil based plastics.

I've mentioned Michael Braungart a few times, who seems to be the pioneer in the green chsemistry space - for those who want to learn more, here are some more links:,28804,1663317_1663322_1...

I hope everyone clicks on that nurdle link above. This is shocking. Yet one more thing to file under the category of "You have GOT to be kidding..."

In terms of weight, humans produce one Sears Tower worth of plastic every 2 days. In terms of volume, that must mean we produce one Sears Tower worth of plastic every few hours. This is twilight zone stuff. I guess that 10000 gallons a second of oil we consume has to go somewhere.

Perhaps George Carlin was right about plastic. All this is invoking visions of a sci-fi horror of epic proportions. Imagine that an alien race seeded life on countless worlds. While those seeded lifeforms evolve, they instinctually discover the petroleum that their host planets produce. They build up an industrial civilization with an odd propensity for plastic. They produce many trillions of tons of plastic. The alien Creators send probes to all their worlds to monitor the progress of the many civilizations that form. Once a civilization approaches peak oil production, they send a mother ship. The mother ship uses a highly advanced weapon to zap the planet with a huge charged pulse. This pulse polarizes all the plastic on the planet. Then all the plastic is easily sucked up and stored as fuel for the ship so it can journey to the next planet on the list.

Here's an interesting article from Reuters about mining landfills for plastic - Could $100 oil turn dumps into plastic mines?

That potential is clear to Chris Dow, managing director of the first so-called "closed loop" recycling plant in Britain able to recycle plastic bottles to a standard high enough for re-use as food packaging. Closed Loop London is one of only six similar plants around the world in Austria, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland and the United States and processes polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, used for water and drinks bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDP). It has the capacity to recycle 35,000 tonnes each year.

A passionate recycler, Dow is convinced there is value buried in rubbish dumps, but angry that talk has turned to investing in technologies to harvest it rather than focusing on stopping more plastic from being dumped now. "Just imagine the resources that are lying in those landfills -- it could be incredible," he told Reuters. "But the insane thing is that we are talking now about investing millions into tapping into a resource under the ground, when the real tragedy is that every week we're still dumping tonnes and tonnes of plastic into more landfills. It's an act of vandalism against the environment."

Plastics production is not in anyway threatened by peak oil. Plastic from coal is all the go, and if you do a little google excavating you will see that the Chinese are well down this road. And with west hating Pakistan nearby with 1/4 of the worlds coal reserves (reportedly), I think that their future domination of the worlds plastic junk products is well assured. What is that you say? The energy that is required to convert coal to plastic precursors? Use more coal, its cheap.

So the worlds corn and potatoes are safe from predatory plastics manufacturers. Whew!!

I must admit I hadn't noticed any talk about Chinese coal to plastics before, but you are correct - they do seem to be doing this.

Don't tell coal doomers about Pakistani coal - I found a Pakistani govt report claiming "4th largest" rights - any idea what the EWG report said about them (its too late for me to dig further) ?

Pakistan has considerable oil, gas, coal reserves; tidal, solar and hydel potential. It is ironic that Pakistan has fourth largest coal reserves in the world but it is importing 2.5 million tons of coal per annum for cement industry. At the same time, due to high cost of energy resources, the government has also decided to enhance the share of coal in the overall energy mix from 5 % to 18% up to 2018. Among the other alternative sources, coal is the man source for producing cheaper electricity and its availability is much higher. In view of anticipated shortfall of electricity and other energy resources during the next 10 years, demand for indigenous coal would grow in power generation considerably.

Pakistan has emerged as one of the leading country - seventh in the list of top 20 countries of the world after the discovery of huge lignite coal resources in Sindh. The economic coal deposits of Pakistan are restricted to Paleocene and Eocene rock sequences. Economists say that the energy demand over the next 5 years is expected to grow at a rate of 7.4 % per annum. It may be noted that in India the share of coal is as high as 54.5% in the total energy mix. To meet the future requirements of the country with indigenous resources, domestic exploration would have to be intensified to increase the share of coal from 5 to 25% by 2020. The GSP’s workshop provided a platform to highlight the role of the indigenous resources in the national economy especially in energy and industry.

Coal -the black gold, is found in all the four provinces of Pakistan. Country has huge coal resources, about 185 billion tons, out of which 3.3 billion tons are in proven/measured category and about 11 billions are indicated reserves, the bulk of it is found in Sindh province. The current total mine-able reserves of coal are estimated at 2 billion tones (60 % of the measured reserves). The speakers at this moot enlightened the audience with the importance of Thar coalfield and its development and utilization as less expensive fuel for power generation and other process industry. Because of Thar coal’s extraordinary importance for power generation, industrial development and economy, Sindh government and GOP are making all out efforts to develop this huge deposit for power purpose. It is one of the world’s largest lignite deposits discovered by GSP in 1992, spread over more than 9, 000 sq. kms. comprise around 175 billion tones sufficient to meet country’s fuel requirements for centuries.

From a global warming point of view none of this is very encouraging of course...

"From a global warming point of view none of this is very encouraging of course..."

So true, Gav. And this is something that the Rapierphiles should keep in mind as they make their highly distorted and inacurate remarks about bio fuels and food.

On the plus side, the Chinese are far more concerned with and more highly proactive on global warming action than are, say, the Americans, or the Australians.

It is rarely recognised that China's CO2 emissions are by and large emissions of many other countries, as it is these many other countries that the emissions are made on behalf of in the production of the cheap goods that underpin the economic growth of these countries. And it is this very reality that will wash away any criticism should China move to replace oil carbon for plastics with coal carbon. The positive thing with this is that much of the carbon in plastic form produced becomes sequestered in land fills. Taking carbon from the atmosphere via a biological process and land fill sequestering it after use in the plastic form is, of course, much better.