Is it the beginning of the end of petroleum-based plastics?

April 13, 2011
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Andrew Dent,
Material ConneXion

"It may well be a glimpse of 'the beginning of the end' for petroleum-based plastics, but I wouldn’t hold my breath!"
 
Tom Szaky,
TerraCycle

"I am very excited by this development, [but] I fear it may be overstating things quite a bit."
 
Eric Hartman,
Product Ventures

"I don't believe that the use of petroleum based plastics is coming to an end just yet, but it’s a start."


A senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council said we’re seeing the beginning of the end of petroleum-based plastics, after Pepsi announced that it would begin testing a 100 percent plant-based PET bottle. Is that overstating things? What do you see the future holding?

Andrew H. Dent, Vice President, Library and Materials Research, Material ConneXion:

I welcome the developments we have seen from beverage companies such as Pepsi and Coca Cola to increase the amount of plant based raw materials used in their packaging, and I hope many others will follow suit. The use of plant based plastics has been seen most in food service and packaging, and it may well be a glimpse of “the beginning of the end” for petroleum-based plastics, but I wouldn’t hold my breath! Some of the more basic packaging containers lend themselves well to this change, but there are many other more demanding applications, whether they are in the packaging of more volatile or corrosive contents such as fragrances, cleansers, bleaches that require multilayered packaging or more resistant materials than the plant based solutions can currently handle easily.

Looking beyond packaging to the wide world of plastics, there are many engineering plastics that cannot currently be replaced by plant based solutions - again in the more demanding higher performance or more corrosive environments - and in applications that use higher molecular weight plastics it is hard to see how plant based solutions could ever replace current solutions. I am optimistic however, so given how innovative chemists have been in creating our current range of amazing plastics over the last 40 years, think what they could do for these new plant based versions!

Tom Szaky, Founder and CEO, TerraCycle:

I am very excited by this development and commend Pepsi for their action and effort, [but] I fear it may be overstating things quite a bit. As I see it there are two main challenges to bio-plastics and compostable packaging:
  1. Consumer response. Look at what happened with SunChips, a compostable chip bag was pulled because of consumer complaints about the noise. What will we (the American consumer) find wrong with a plant-based plastic bottle? The feel? The smell? The taste? I cringe at the though of what we will find wrong next.
  2. Pepsi is a massive company with nearly endless resources and a highly entrenched brand. I fear too many small companies, private labelers, generic manufactures will not soon have the resources to pull off this kind of switch.
I hope that I am wrong, but I don’t see the end of petroleum based plastic coming soon enough. After all the first electric car was sold in the 70’s.

Eric Hartman, Director Packaging Technologies and Commercialization, Product Ventures:

I do applaud Pepsi's announcement that it will soon begin testing a 100% plant based PET bottle. Ultimately, moving away from petrochemical derived polymers to those that are sourced from renewable resources, is what we must do in order to improve the sustainability of packaging. 

Unfortunately, most of the infrastructure that supports the production of these "plant based" polymers is still heavily dependent on the use of petrochemicals as a source of energy, and the amount of petroleum that actually goes into the production of plastics is relatively small. Just like it took us the last 100 years to develop a society based on the use and exploitation of petroleum resources, it will take us time to wean ourselves off of them and embrace the use of alternative technologies to create materials similar to what we use today. I don't believe that the use of petroleum based plastics is coming to an end just yet, but it’s a start.  As the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said in the 5th century BC, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.    

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Plant- based PET containers

Richard Salcer
April 19, 2011
I find a good deal of pessimism expressed in the comments here. What is not accounted for, though, is the pace of innovation. Things are happening faster and at a faster rate. As a recent example of this, see genius futurist Raymond Kurzweil's new treatise, "The Singularity". Development does not happen on a steady plane - it happens on an ever-steeper curve. What might put a stone in the path are entrenched forces in places of influence, such as the petrochemical industry. Case in point: one could actually have bought an electric car in the US in 1903, the Electric Brougham. This was counter to the interests of Standard Oil and the results are history. One could say the movement for sustainability and green practices encountering Big Oil's opposition is like witnessing an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object. The usual result of such an occurrence is that the immoveable object eventually drowns in the flood. Sustainability is here and it isn't going away because the population at large has embraced it - albeit slowly at first, but now on a rapidly increasing scale. A further example of the changing pace of change. As for future innovation to conquer society's ills, please take note that the vast majority of all the scientists who ever lived are still alive.

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