>Bio Plastics – Gettin’ The Skinny

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By Elizabeth Rickard Shah

The new age – Bio Plastics (sustainable design) 

In the l967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character was advised to go into "Plastics!" if he wanted a promising career and a prosperous future.  Since then we truly entered into the Age of Plastics. 

100 million tons of Plastic are produced every year.  We use plastic in and for about everything we consume. From a Design perspective this great invention is doing a fantastic job. It is going to be a challenging to replace it.

Yet unless we re think our approach to manufacturing, design and invention, this AGE OF PLASTIC is here to stay.

Nether the less, this revolutionary material that has had such a huge purpose in our consumer driven lives, is actually damaging our very existence.  

As a designer myself, I believe that our roles as designers/creators/inventors, is to use our creativity and ideas to introduce new innovations as well as improve on what already exists. And as designer who believes in protecting our environment, I believe if we can do our job whilst incorporating sustainability and understanding nature’s cycle, we can and should help reshape our future.

I recently had the opportunity to explore and research bio plastics.  This research opened a world to me that in my opinion is not only innovating, but co –exists with today's economic environment. Further more it is part social, part green business, part design and part re-invention of human industry and it is one of our best hopes for a future of sustaining prosperity whilst still respecting nature.

However this emerging Industry, although around sine the 1900’s still has to prove its way. There is little if any consumer awareness. Leading understandably to skepticism. 

Are they really what they say they are and how do we know?

Bio plastics are polymers that are generated from renewable natural sources,

They can be produced by biological systems (i.e. micro-organisms, plants and animals), or chemically synthesized from biological starting materials (e.g. sugars, starch, natural fats or oils, etc.). 

Bio plastics have enhanced environmental properties. The most important being that they are biodegradable and compostable.

But what does this mean?

Biodegradability is the natural process by which organic matter decomposes. Composting is the common process.

Four factors play a role

  1. Moisture
  2. Oxygen
  3. Temperature
  4. Micro-organisms

It is important that the three stages of process occur.

  1. Fragmentation. The matter breaks down into Fragments which are invisible to the human eye but still present in the environment
  2. Bio – assimilation. Micro organisms in the ground digest fragments
  3. Mineralization. Elements which can be absorbed by plants

It is important to add that waste produced by biodegradation must not pose a toxic hazard for the environment.

Biodegradation can occur in a controlled environment – composting.Or in natural environment. 

There are very high standard certification processes involved, which need to adhere to all of the above before one can claim to have a bio plastic.

The most important tests at present are

ASTM D6400 Test to certify if a product can be composted

ASTM D6868 Test to determine if a biodegradable plastic is truly biodegradable

EN 13432 European Test to determine biodegradability and compostability of plastics

In fact consumers should be demanding that biodegradable products on the market demonstrate either one of these standards if they do not already.

Other reliable symbols to look out for are

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In Italy where I live there is a Bio plastics company called Novamont that produce a biopolymer Mater-Bi. Please visit their website. www.mater-bi.com.

Novament exemplifies the continual research required and necessary to bring the Future to us

My local supermarket FIRENZE COOP replaced all of their classic petroleum made shopping bags with a compostable substitute made from Mater-bi ., the biopolymer produced by Novamont.

They appear to have been a huge success. I myself composted one of the bags and indeed it biodegraded within weeks.

However I do understand all the concerns surrounding bio-plastic. Although there has been an incredible step forward, there are still underlying issues.

In fact most plastic bags that claim to be biodegradable are in fact partially destroyed fragmentation and not comply with the standard EN 13432 (the strictest of all standards)

For more information visit. www.greenplastic.com

Further more, It is important that consumers are concerned about whether or not the natural sources are GMO enhanced, or if increasing production of corn affects the food chain.  Where the raw material comes from, and what types of pesticides are used.  There is at least five other blogs that could be written in defense of or put argument to, all of the above.

There is a wealth of information on all the bio plastic producers websites, which can answer many concerns, however there is often not enough on the end usage or finished product.

Here are some useful website that are both informative and helpful

www.bioplastics24.com

www.sustainablebusiness.com

www.bpiworld.org

www.bpsweb.net

www.biothinking.com

www.biolymers.net

The widespread use of Bio plastics will depend on how successful they can be in the marketplace. To do that we all need to understand and trust them. This will depend on how strongly we are committed to, environmental preservation, and sustainable technologies, as well as realizing also it is a work in progress. There are growing signs that people indeed want to live in greater harmony with nature and leave future generations a healthy planet. If so, bio plastics will help bring us into a NEW AGE. 
 
Elizabeth Rickard Shah is the co-founder of PURE, a chrome-free leather goods manufacture and design company based in Italy, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

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