Ecological plastic from organic waste

The Cidetec-IK4 technological centre, based at the Donostia-San Sebastián Technological Park, is leading a European project for developing new plastics from organic waste such as the banana plant, almond nut shells or crustaceans, amongst others. These new plastics, aimed at cleaner and more sustainable alternative to petroleum oil-derived ones, will have advanced properties using nanotechnology-based methods.

The European project, known as ECLIPSE, is to last 3 years (2012-2014) and involves the participation by important bodies, universities, companies, etc., from countries such as Germany, Belgium and Spain, and by other Latin American bodies from Chile and Colombia.

The immense majority of plastic materials currently on the market are derived from non-environmentally friendly petroleum oil.  The anticipated end of crude oil supplies in the near future – defended by arguments such as the Hubbert Peak theory –, together with the increase in the price of petroleum, has in recent years triggered a race to find alternative formulae for substituting this fossil fuel as an energy source and raw material from which products such as plastics are derived.

Plastics manufactured from polylactic acid (PLA) from organic material such as maize or sugar beet are an alternative which is increasingly gaining weight. Nevertheless, the use of these raw materials is viewed with certain misgivings, given that a recent report by the European Union (Report COM 2010, on indirect land-use change related to biofuels and bioliquids) shows that more and more agricultural land is being earmarked to growing vegetables for the production of biofuels and bioplastics.

This phenomenon increases the price of basic food products, such as maize and wheat, and puts pressure to allocate evermore land to agriculture to this end, with devastating consequences for consumers and small producers in developing countries.

Organic waste as raw material

The project led by Cidetec-IK4 aims to develop plastics derived from waste organic material. This employment of raw materials from organic waste such as the banana plant, almond nut shells or crustacean shells has additional advantages, such as it does not influence the final price of foodstuffs and does not directly affect the environment.

The procedure involves taking waste from biodiesel production – glucides - and process them in order to obtain lactic acid. Subsequently, this lactic acid is polymerised in order to obtain PLA. It is here that nanotechnology comes into play. By adding nanofibres of organic waste, plastic can be achieved that has greater resistance to external agents and enhanced mechanical properties.

Ibon Odriozola, Head of the Nanotechnology Unit at Cidetec-IK4, considers that, apart from the environmental challenge for the project, “ECLIPSE has an economic objective, as this project aims to increase the competiveness of European countries in the biopolymers’ market without increasing the price of basic foods”.

Europe is currently leader in the world consumption of biopolymers but, paradoxically, the main producer of biopolymers is USA based and employs maize as a raw material, thus competing directly with food production. However, the ECLIPSE project proposes obtaining biopolymers from waste and therefore does not compete on the market with food producers. As an additional advantage, using waste materials will reduce the cost of biopolymers’ production even more.

Science news source: 

Elhuyar Fundazioa