With energy resources dwindling and "sustainability" becoming a must-have word in the lexicon of almost every company in the developed world, the debate over the use of cleaner materials is intensifying, especially when it comes to plastic.
Some claim the "war on plastic" is unjustified, with people to blame for pollution rather than the material itself, while others argue that taking simple steps to replace traditional plastics with more natural biological substitutes would cut back on carbon emissions drastically.
One such company is the Italian firm Novamont, whose starch-based Mater-Bi bio-plastic is already widely used in supermarket shopping bags and even tire treads.
Novamont was originally established back in 1989 under the name Fertec, a research center with the aim of combining the study of chemistry and agriculture to produce fuel and materials more conducive to the principles of environmental sustainability.
Fertec’s basic philosophy was that the environment was something able to propel the development of a business that was economically sustainable and competitive on a large scale. As such, the firm plowed money, time and resources into looking for natural alternatives to various materials, bio-fuels, lubricants, detergents and even paper.
Despite the fact that bio-fuels could indeed be created from crops, however, scientists quickly discovered that the process was simply not sustainable.
The annual worldwide demand for fuel required is around 1.5 billion metric tons (and is rapidly increasing). In no way could this need be covered by food crops because the entire planet would not provide sufficient space for the planting required.
Looking at the figures, total corn production worldwide --one of the crops most widely used in the bio-fuel industry-- is 700 million metric tons. Italy produces around 10 million metric tons and cannot even meet the requirements of its human food and animal feed sectors, being forced to import much of its needs.
On the other hand, scientists posited, just 70,000 hectares of corn and 600,000 hectares of oleaginous non-food crops would be sufficient to meet Italy’s total requirements for packaging plastics, amounting to some 2 million metric tons. Considering that Italy’s cultivatable lands come to 15 million hectares, Fertec reasoned that bio-plastics would not adversely affect the food chain and, indeed, might even strengthen it.
Thus, in 1992, the firm decided to focus solely on the creation of bio-materials, changing its name to Novamont in 1994. Today, Novamont is the largest European company producing bioplastics using vegetable components, having invested upward of 120 million euros in developing a broad range of products from vegetable raw materials.
Novamont became a profitable company in 2001 and is currently on track in 2012 to see a turnover of some 200 million euros, with a staff of around 150 people, 30 percent of whom are employed in research and development.
Still today the company consistently reinvests 10 percent of its profits into further R&D at its plant near Turin in Italy.
Made from starch
For its pioneering role in the bio-plastics sector, and specifically in starch based bio-plastics (possessing mechanical properties and processing capabilities very similar to traditional plastics), the firm has accumulated a patent portfolio of around 70 basic patents, most to do with the complexation of starch as a consequence of insoluble polymers of the hydrophile-hydrophone type.
Starch is made up of two components; amylose (a linear polyglucose alpha) and amylopectin (a branched polyglucose alpha). In nature, the two components are organized into crystalline granules, but these can be restructured.
After restructuring, starch can be subjected to complexation by synthetic polymers. The complexed amylose can then screen single molecules of amylopectin, giving rise to droplet like structures that are resistant to water. That's how scientists have been able to simulate the strength or rigid behavior of traditional plastics.
Novamont calls this material Mater-Bi, the first family of biopolymers that use vegetable components such as starch from maize, potatoes and other starchy crops. The company claims Mater-Bi is completely biodegradable and compostable.
Mater-Bi, says Novamont, has a lower environmental cost by being two to three times thinner than regular plastics, with a proven re-absorption rate into the soil.
Bio-plastics made from starch nano-particles are not just for shopping bags, either. They've also been found capable of strengthening tire treads to give them low rolling resistance properties.
In this application for Mater-Bi, the tire's lifespan is not improved by the use of the nano-particle itself, rather the most important aspect is the savings in terms of fuel and carbon dioxide emissions.
Used by Goodyear in its bio-tread technology for tires, the material was found to save around five percent of petrol, reducing greenhouse gases by 7-10g/km.
Novamont currently exports around 65 percent of its production, a common theme in Italian manufacturing, but the firm is also keen to nurture its presence on home turf, playing a significant role in education by promoting internships from local colleges to train young people.
"The main challenge facing the new millennium is to find innovative development models which are capable of preserving the planet's resources whilst maintaining and improving the quality of the lives of its inhabitants," said a company spokeswoman.
"Nature provides us with an enormous range of raw materials from which it is possible to synthesize various chemical intermediaries which are similar to those obtained from fossil raw materials as well as a wide variety of molecules and processes for synthesizing," she added.
Disposable is still disposable
It has been estimated by environmental protection agencies that removing organic waste from landfill sites is equivalent to lowering carbon dioxide emissions from 74 to 94 million metric tons, 11 percent of the Kyoto objective for Europe.
The increases in the prices of food raw materials, however, has seen public enthusiasm for energy generated from renewable sources wane significantly, and has also played into the hands of those who see renewable resources as a threat to their current business.
Not even all environmentalists are on board with the idea, noting that introducing bioplastics alongside regular plastics will simply confuse people into believing that all plastics can be safely thrown on the dump, thus doing away with all the good work that has been done to educate people about proper disposal of waste products. Without proper education, they argue, any product classified as renewable, irrespective of its biodegradability could end up in the organic waste chain.
Criticisms aside, however, Novamont is not giving up on its quest to encourage the world to make the switch from product based economy to a more environmentally friendly system based economy using all the tools in its arsenal, from macromolecular chemistry, to microbiology, bio-technology, process engineering, and transformation technologies. And the dream, at least, seems utterly sustainable.