It takes 450 years, almost half of a century, for a plastic bottle to decompose. In 2012 about 32 million tons of plastic garbage was collected of which only nine percent was recycled. Through industrial biotechnology, innovators are creating greener alternatives to consumer and personal care products that are commonly made using petroleum. In their article, Biobased products popping up throughout the economy, Agri-Pulse highlights how biobased products are rising in popularity and provides several examples of companies who are innovators in this area. In 2011, the USDA sponsored a study which attempted to quantify just about how many biobased products are present in 3,500 companies, and they found about 27,484 products used:
The switch is a droplet in a rising wave of new biobased products and expanding uses – everything from clothing, carpet, cleaners and cosmetics to computer and car parts.
Even the head of the USDA Office of Energy and Policy and New Uses, Harry Baumes expects biobased products, especially biochemicals and biopolymers, to be increasing in metrics:
“About 96 percent of the industrial processes around the world involve chemicals. The potential [for biochemicals] is huge,” though he also believes that the crude oil price erosion to about $60 a barrel is making it harder for biochemicals to compete economically with petroleum based versions.
Regardless of competition, S.Blake Lindsey the Founder of MHG — a starting bioplastics company in Georgia, believes that biodegradable material is safe for the environment and for people, which is a quality that will always trump crude oil:
“The big brand names are paying attention to what consumers want. Americans don’t like seeing plastic wash up on their beaches.”
Lindsey’s company ferments oils from canola seeds to produce a biodegradable plastic which can be manipulated by chemists to make plastics of different physical properties that range from tough packaging plastics to fishing nets that can dissolve in the sea. This year, MHG will grow from 500 acres of canola to 4,000 acres.
Companies like the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. are switching to tires derived from rice husks. NatureWorks has developed a bioplastic which can be used for 3D printing while Chicago-based Lanzatech has set a goal of creating products that emit less greenhouse gases:
Lanzatech will install a system to capture the smoky flue emissions of a China Steel Corp. plant in Taiwan. Its gas fermentation process will use microbes to recycle the carbon-rich waste gases into 17 million gallons a year of ethanol and gasoline additives.
The White House Office of Science and Technology also predicts a rise in the use of nanocellulose — which could significantly affect the paper industry by possibly creating 425,000 jobs in the U.S. by 2020.
The possibilities for biobased products are endless, and will thrive a lot longer than the eroding plastic bottle.
China Steel Corporation
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
MHG - The Biopolymer Company
Office of Science and Technology Policy (The White House)
US Department of Agriculture (USDA)