Just One Word: Bioplastics

As the environmental hazards of plastic become hard to ignore, a new generation of plant-based alternatives is creeping into commercial applications. Now it’s time for designers to take them to the next level.

Here’s a little thought experiment for those readers who will be in New York this month trolling the aisles of the Javits Center during the 21st International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Every time you see something made with plastic—a colorful polypropylene chair, say, or a cushion filled with polyester fibers—remind yourself of one uncomfortable fact: what you’re looking at will likely be around for hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. Your glimpse of the future of furniture design is also a peek at the content of tomorrow’s landfills.

I know, it’s a depressing game. After all, plastic is cheap, durable, versatile—even lovable. (Full disclosure: I’m looking at my beloved white-ABS Braun coffeemaker while I write this with my favorite translucent-polycarbonate pen.) But sooner or later we’re go-ing to have to face the facts: plastic is choking the planet. The molecular bonds that make the mat­e­rial extremely durable also make it ex-cruciatingly slow to degrade, so it hangs around for a long, long time. And recycling efforts aside—Americans currently recycle only 12 percent of plastic containers and packaging—most of it ends up in landfills or, worse, in the natural environment. There, it breaks down into smaller bits, picks up oily pollutants, and gets ingested by birds and fish. (The so-called Great Pacific Gar­bage Patch—a stew of plastic junk northeast of Hawaii that is estimated to be twice the size of Texas—is one of the more egregious examples of this phenomenon.)

The good news: there is a viable alternative. Plastics made from plants—bioplastics—have several key advantages over their synthetic cousins. They aren’t derived from petroleum, a dwindling, nonrenewable resource that is tied up with all sorts of geopolitical strife; they won’t stick around forever; and in the right conditions, they can degrade in a matter of months. And the carbon dioxide released when they do degrade is offset by the carbon sequestered by the next crop of plastic-making plants. The bad news: bioplastics currently make up just a tiny portion of global plastic production, and they face significant hurdles to more widespread adoption.

Bioplastics are not new. In the 1850s, a Brit­ish chemist created plastics from cellulose, a derivative of wood pulp. Later, in the early 20th century, Henry Ford experimented with soy-based plastics in his automobiles, even going so far as to unveil a complete prototype plastic car in 1941. But by that time petroleum had emerged as a source for synthetic polymers, which possessed more fav­orable properties than plant-based versions. World War II cemented the dominance of synthetic plastics, and in the 70 years since we’ve not looked back.

Only in the last decade, in response to the rising cost and shrinking supply of oil, have bioplastics reemerged in consumer applications. In 2003, NatureWorks—a joint venture of Cargill, the largest agricultural business in the United States, and Dow Chem­­­­ical, the country’s biggest chemical company—began producing Ingeo bioplastics, which can be extruded into containers for food packaging and into fibers for apparel, furnishings, and disposable products such as baby wipes. Ingeo is a PLA, or polylactic acid, derived from corn—the most common and fully developed of the current crop of bioplastics. But alternatives are also being made from castor beans, sugarcane, algae, and even chicken feathers. In theory, you could make plastic out of thin air by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I recently sat down with Andrew Dent, the vice president of Material ConneXion, a New York–based resource center for inno­vative materials, to learn more about the new bioplastics and how designers can better take advantage of them. On the table between us were about a dozen samples of contemporary ap-plications from the company’s materials library: a soap dish, a swath of die-cut woven fabric, a coffee cup, some disposable forks and spoons. “Packaging is the easiest and the most desirable application for bioplastics,” Dent explains, “because they’re the things likely to be thrown away most quickly.”

But while bioplastics are creeping into consumer applications, they have yet to meet the performance requirements of more durable goods. “At the moment, they’re in their infancy,” Dent says. “So we only see a few applications where they’re actually being used as molded products.” Cell-phone casings are one such example. Last year, the Japanese company NEC unveiled a phone with a corn-based-plastic body. Other companies have added strengthening fibers to PLA—creating what’s called a biocomposite—but that tends to tarnish the material’s appearance and make it less desirable for industrial-design applications.

Even when bioplastics have made inroads in higher-performance categories, they have proved problematic. Take the contract-textiles manufacturer Carnegie as an example. In 2005 the company introduced its Insight line of panel fabrics, made with Ingeo fibers, but late last year it discontinued the line. “To be very honest, it was not very successful, basically because of the price,” says Carnegie’s Mary Holt, who says that PLA fiber costs about 20 percent more than polyester, which adds up when you’re using large swaths of fabric on a vertical surface. This cost difference might be acceptable for upholstery, but Ingeo doesn’t meet the performance requirements for contract upholstery; the fabrics lack the necessary abrasion resistance, they don’t have adequate fire resistance, and they won’t hold up to rigorous cleaning. “Unfortunately, what’s happened with the PLA and the biobased fibers is that they haven’t really evolved,” Holt says.

And high cost and low performance aren’t the only obstacles bioplastics have to overcome. Right now, manufacturing them is more energy intensive than making synthetics; even though bioplastics have a net-zero carbon footprint as a material, their production still creates a surfeit of CO². Plus, bioplastics pose a recycling problem. While they could be recycled in theory, the infrastructure to do so is not in place—and bioplastics will contaminate the existing recycling stream. Finally, there are ethical questions about PLA: Is it responsible to make grocery bags and baby wipes out of corn when nearly a billion people worldwide are starving?

Still, Dent is confident that the bioplastics industry can overcome these challenges. “We will get better at producing them. we will get more efficient. They will eventually take less energy to produce,” he says. “We have a seventy-year head start with regular plastics.” The key, of course, is demand. Not enough people today are asking for bioplastics. Synthetic plastic works all too well, and the potential for recycling calms many environmentalists’ anxieties. (No doubt, recycling remains a good and necessary thing, but it’s not widely enough implemented to justify unlimited plastic production.)

And so, a plea to all the furniture and product designers out there: Bioplastics are the future! Instead of waiting for petroleum reserves to become even lower, oil prices to spike, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to balloon to the size of the entire United States, why not embrace bioplastics now? Why not make your next concept chair or limited-edition decorative bauble or other kind-of-impractical-but-really-cool objet d’art out of PLA? Even a high-end sofa is possible. “You could use Ingeo fabric for the upholstery,” Dent says. “You could use a soy-based foam. And then you could use a biocompos­ite as an alternative to the wood. It can be done.” Granted, bioplastics have a long way to go, but if designers and manufacturers start creating a market for high-performance applications now, the scientific breakthroughs will follow. And furniture fairs like ICFF can become a showcase for material innovation instead of an uncomfortable reminder of our wasteful ways.

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