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Driving Sustainable Futures

30. November 2020

Understanding Bioplastics and Sustainable Solutions

As industries across the globe from consumer electronics to automotive to medical devices emphasize sustainable products, bioplastics continue to play a critical role. Long before it was fashionable, Trinseo made a name for itself in this area through its involvement with the fashion & footwear industry, which has for over a decade, been focused on innovative materials and the development of bio-based and biodegradable materials to satisfy its discerning customers.

Trinseo's Global TPE Technology & Innovation Leader, Marco Meneghetti shares the distinction between the areas of bioplastics: biobased, biodegradable, and compostable.  He also adds that each approach results in significant environmental benefits which include saving of fossil-based resources, reduction of global warming potential, reduction of water consumption, and sustainable waste management.

Biobased means the material is entirely or partly derived from biomass, i.e., plants.  Biomass used for bioplastics comes from renewable resources, e.g., corn, sugarcane, cellulose, or algae.  To measure biobased content in a material, a supplier will evaluate it by either ASTM D6866 or IS0 16620 standards. According to ASTM, biobased content in a material is determined by the amount of carbon derived from biomass C14 vs total organic carbon (TOC); ISO says it is the total amount of biobased mass vs the total mass.

Biodegradable means a plastic (or other material) can break down, or decompose, by the action of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, or algae and return to nature in the form of carbon dioxide (and/or methane), water, mineral salts and biomass within a specific period of time.  European standards consider a material biodegradable if it breaks down by 90 percent within six months.

Compostable is related to biodegradable. It means a plastic or other material that’s biodegradable can break down into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity within three months. Whether or not a material will be compostable depends on the thickness, size, and shape of the material used for a final application. The smaller and thinner the needed material, the quicker it will disintegrate through the action of microorganisms used in formulating biodegradable materials.

According to Meneghetti the solution selected to support a customer is driven by the requirements of an application and the customer's sustainability goals. Since applications require specific performance properties, after evaluating it Trinseo will develop a material that has one of the characteristics above, or a combination:

  • Entirely or partly biobased
  • Biobased and biodegradable
  • Non-biobased and biodegradable
  • Biodegradable and compostable

In the end it's all about results.  Trinseo conducts Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impacts associated with an application, considering its entire life cycle from the extraction of raw materials to its final disposal or end-of life waste management (cradle-to-grave). LCA is an internationally standardized method of evaluation under ISO 14040 and ISO 14004.  Trinseo will conduct LCA on behalf of its customers if they choose, said Meneghetti. " So far in all cases we have seen positive environmental impacts." From a customer perspective the drivers and benefits of incorporating bioplastics are multifaceted.  The customer might want to strategically reposition a product, communicate environmental information that can be used to enhance product reputation, secure eco-labeling (e. g. EU Ecolabel, Carbon Footprint), or to have Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) ready and available. What ever the case the trend in bioplastics is only getting stronger. 

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