New Internationalist

Plastic plants

Issue 415

Henry Ford dreamed of making plastic cars out of soy. Now Dow, DuPont and other chemical giants are also dreaming of a ‘green’ future. But, as Jim Thomas argues, bioplastic is not the eco-solution it’s cracked up to be.

The future of plastic was always gleaming white. Monsanto’s plastic ‘house of the future’ that once stood at the heart of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center and the futuristic Space Hilton hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey both featured shiny white doors, walls, ceilings and furniture. To designers of the mid-1960s hard, white, unbreakable plastic, like the white heat of the technology revolution, must have represented a pristine future moulded in the name of modernism. As Mr McGuire memorably whispered to Dustin Hoffman in the 1967 film, The Graduate: ‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.’

Forty years later, its reputation tarnished and its ‘house of the future’ dismantled, the plastics industry is struggling to resurrect the image of plastic as the noble ‘material of the future’. This time we are told that plastics will be soft, degradable and blend in with nature. They’re called bioplastics and the industry has a new colour in mind: green.

Search the web and you could be forgiven for thinking that today’s plastics industry has become a gardening enterprise

Search the web and you could be forgiven for thinking that today’s plastics industry has become a gardening enterprise. There’s Mirel, for example, a bioplastic made from corn sugar, cane sugar or vegetable oils whose website looks like an advert for grass seed. Or Sphere Inc, Europe’s leading biofilm producer whose homepage is adorned with tulips even though their plastics are made from potatoes. DuPont promotes its latest bioplastic with images of grassy hillsides while the NatureWorks website (a joint venture between Cargill and Japan’s Teijin corporation) displays a montage of tree leaves. Both companies make their bioplastics mainly from genetically modified corn drenched in pesticides – no tree leaves or grass in sight.

Strictly speaking a bioplastic is a polymer that has been produced from a plant instead of from petroleum. That is neither a new breakthrough nor a guarantee of ecological soundness. The earliest plastics such as celluloid were made from tree cellulose before petroleum proved itself a cheaper source. Today, with oil prices skyrocketing, it’s cheaper feedstock not green principles that is driving chemical companies back to bio-based plastics.

Indeed green, for the plastic industry, mostly means money – a big new pot of it. Bioplastics already account for 10 to 15 per cent of the global market and are expected to grow to almost a third of total production in just over a decade. They currently bring in over a billion dollars a year – a figure that is set to swell to more than $10 billion by 2012. Despite attempts to market bioplastics as ‘close to nature’ the producers are the same agribusiness and chemical corporations that continue to produce toxic poisons and promote industrial monoculture. ADM and Cargill – who between them sew up most of the world’s grain trade – are two of the biggest players, controlling the NatureWorks and Mirel lines. DuPont, BASF and Dow – three of the world’s largest chemical companies – are also key players.

Breakdown and baloney

Bioplastics may bring in the greenbacks for investors but are they actually green for the planet? The evidence is not convincing. For a start bioplastics may or may not be degradable or biodegradable – two terms that mean very different things. Many bio-based plastics – like DuPont’s Sorona  – make no claims to break down in the environment.

Even those that do claim to break down may have only a slight impact on reducing plastic pollution. So-called ‘degradable’ plastics, such as the bags given out at many supermarkets, are mostly petroleum-based. In theory, they are broken down by sunlight and oxygen over several years. In practice, according to a recent Australian Government report: ‘There are insufficient data to say with any certainty how long many degradable polymers take to fully biodegrade.’ The same report points out that they may only break into smaller pieces of plastic rather than be broken down entirely. Such small pieces are more likely to be ingested by ‘smaller animals such as sea turtle hatchlings’. Consequently there is widespread scepticism as to the environmental value or efficacy of degradable plastics.

Biodegradable plastics get slightly better press. These plant-based plastics will break down to basic elements and minerals, usually in an industrial composter through the activity of heat, micro-organisms and enzymes. This decomposition has to be measured by standardized tests and must take place within a specified period of time – which varies according to the ‘disposal’ method. Unfortunately, the industrial composting facilities required are so rare that only a sliver of the biodegradable plastic produced actually makes it to them. Ingeo – a polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastic developed by NatureWorks – is one so-called ‘compostable’ plastic that will not break down in home composters. NatureWorks also admits that PLA will not break down if left as litter in the countryside, in soils, seawater or even in landfill. Over a much longer period of time of course it will break down, probably faster than petrol-based plastics. But there are likely PLA fragments happily bobbing around in the world’s oceans already. NatureWorks insists that PLA can be recycled, but no system is yet set up to capture and re-use PLA resin. In appearance PLA can be confused with PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used for plastic bottles and so can actually hamper recycling efforts by contaminating existing recycling streams. In October 2004, a group of recycling advocates called on NatureWorks to stop selling PLA for plastic bottles until key questions were addressed. In January 2005 the company did stop selling ‘additional’ PLA for bottle production but broke that moratorium this past April. NatureWorks has yet to test recyclability of any post-consumer PLA.

Bags of food

So much for disposal. But replacing fossil fuels with plants has to be a good idea, right? This is the premise on which the green claims of bioplastics mostly rest. Unfortunately, as advocates of biofuels have learned, switching from oil to biomass as the feedstock of our industrial economy carries its own set of problems. Like hunger.

Last spring food riots in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia woke up the world’s media to how surging food costs are tipping an extra 100 million people into hunger. While the causes are complex the use of food land to grow crops for biofuels is undoubtedly a factor in the shockingly low food stocks. That switch is only the first rumbling of a much larger shift. As 30 per cent of plastics production migrates to bio-based feedstocks both food sugars and land that might otherwise have grown food are being moved from feeding people to feeding the profits of the plastics industry. If it is unacceptable to turn food into fuel at a time of extreme hunger, it should be doubly unacceptable to turn it into plastic bags.

Consider, for example, DuPont’s Sorona bioplastic – a spandex-like fibre used for carpets, clothing and car parts. Last year DuPont built an industrial biorefinery in Tennessee that turns 6.4 million bushels of corn (maize) annually into 100 million pounds of plastic. Growing the corn for just that one biorefinery requires 40,000 acres. By 2010 DuPont intends to turn 25 per cent of its global chemicals and plastics production to bio-based feedstocks and ultimately hopes to move away entirely from oil.

According to analysts at Bio-Era Consulting this is an industry-wide trend. A fifth of the $1.8 trillion chemicals and plastics market may be derived from plants by 2015, mostly food sugars. When heaped on top of the corn and other crops already being diverted into fuel production, that stacks up to a towering mountain of what could have been food for people.

Closing the loop

Indeed, as if to close the loop, the newest feedstock for bioplastics appears actually to be biofuels. In late 2009 Brazil’s largest petrochemical firm, Braskem, will open a $150 million factory designed to produce an annual 200,000 tons of polyethylene (used for shopping bags) from sugarcane-based ethanol. Sugarcane plantations for ethanol production in Brazil now occupy some six million hectares and have attracted fierce opposition for their incursion into forest lands and use of slave labour. The World Rainforest Movement points out that sugarcane plantations are rapidly destroying Brazil’s Cerrado, a sprawling 3.1 million square kilometre woodland savannah, home to tremendous biodiversity. According to Brazilian activist and lawyer Camila Moreno of the NGO Terra de Direitos, the expansion of sugar monocultures under powerful corporate oligopolies ‘is at the root of nearly all socio-environmental conflicts in Brazil, as throughout the rest of Latin America’.

There is nothing sustainable or organic about most industrial agriculture feedstocks. At present genetically modified corn grown using pesticides is probably the leading source of starch for bioplastics. Meanwhile, plastics made from potatoes – such as Stanelco’s ‘Bioplast’ – raise similar concerns. The US-based watchdog, Environmental Working Group, says potatoes have one of the highest pesticide contamination levels of any food – the links between genetic modification and future bioplastics are everywhere. Besides GM corn, there are already four genetically modified (GM) potatoes approved for growing in North America and BASF have now produced a high-starch GM potato aimed squarely at the bioplastics market – soon due to be approved for growing in Europe. In fact, only two major bioplastic producers, Italy’s Novamont and EarthCycle of Canada, tout their products as non-GM. Cargill’s NatureWorks offers a bizarre scheme where purchasers can ‘offset’ the use of GM crops for a price. Genetic modification may soon lead to plastic produced directly in the plant. If such ‘plastic crops’ were to contaminate or mingle with the food supply, this would raise serious environmental and health problems.

Synthetic life

Then there is ‘synthetic biology’. Unlike standard genetic engineering, which involves moving gene sequences between species, synthetic biologists attempt to build life-forms from scratch. Artificial DNA molecules built by a machine are strung together to make entirely novel genetic ‘programs’ hijacking bacteria, yeast and other microbes to transform sugars into plastic. DuPont’s Sorona bioplastic, for example, is produced by yeast containing entirely synthetic DNA designed by Genencor. ADM’s Mirel bioplastic is made from a synthetic microbe designed by Metabolix. All of the concerns that have dogged genetically modified organisms (genetic contamination, lack of safety tests and corporate ownership claims) are intensified in the case of synthetic biology which is as yet unregulated, unlabelled and not subject to any safety assessments.

Genetic modification may lead to plastic produced directly in the plant. If such ‘plastic crops’ were to contaminate the food supply, this would raise serious environmental and health problems

Corporate-owned, non-biodegradable, bolstering industrial agriculture and leading us deeper into genetic modification: it’s hard to be excited about the green future the plastic industry envisions. However, there are attempts to put bioplastics back on course.

‘I am not so universally sceptical of bioplastics,’ explains Annie Leonard, a long-time toxics activist whose new film, The Story of Stuff, examines the materials economy. ‘Transforming from oil-based to bio-based materials has got to be part of our future vision. If that transition just substitutes one material feedstock for another within a deeply flawed system, then I’m concerned. However, if the transition is accompanied by a commitment to reducing waste at source, eliminating toxics in agriculture and production, clean energy sources, fair labour practices and other shifts towards sustainability and equity, then bioplastics can be a powerful step in the right direction.’

One such step is the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC) – a network of 16 civil society groups and ethical businesses working to define a truly sustainable bioplastic. One of its founders, Tom Lent, explains that the SBC started because ‘the promise of bioplastics was not being realized’.

The SBC has issued a lengthy ‘Sustainable Bioplastic Guidelines’ which is based around 12 sound principles ranging from avoiding GM crops and pesticides to supporting farmer livelihoods. It’s a challenging and refreshing document, very different from the bioplastic industry’s empty greenwash. There may not be many ‘sustainable bioplastics’ to point to but at least it’s an honest start – no pictures of tulips or grass this time.

Jim Thomas is a researcher and writer with the ETC group (www.etcgroup.org) in Ottawa.

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