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Earth Friendly: Renewable plastics

Aug. 18, 2011 at 3:18 a.m.


By Meridith Byrd

I came across a new word today: bioplastics. Without realizing it, I already knew the meaning of the word: plastics made from plant-based, renewable sources.

PLANT-BASED PACKING PEANUTS

Depending on the brand, some packing peanuts are made from sorghum and some are made from corn starch. Unlike Styrofoam peanuts, they are not toxic if accidentally ingested by kids and pets. Though I imagine they must taste almost as good as a rice cake, the manufacturing process removes the edible portions along with any nutritional value and eating them is not recommended. However, since components like sugars are removed from the peanuts, they do not attract bugs or rodents.

BOTTLES, DISHES AND UTENSILS

Coke has begun marketing its new PlantBottle, 30 percent of which is made of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. Sugarcane is also used in the manufacturing of other plastic items, such as cups and food trays. Corn-based cups and utensils are on the market and available locally. Some of these plastics are even considered compostable, though they are meant for commercial composting facilities and not backyard compost piles.

TRASH BAGS

Biodegradable trash bags made from corn starch are available at natural foods stores, such as Whole Foods Market, or they can be purchased online. These are handy if you have a kitchen compost container and a backyard compost pile. You can also put biodegradable bags in your trash can and in about three to six months in the landfill they will have broken down.

BIOPLASTICS NOT WITHOUT DRAWBACKS

Researchers are continually looking for renewable alternatives to petroleum-based materials, and while this is a commendable endeavor, bioplastics are not without their own costs.

Some of these products are derived from corn starch, and corn requires a heavy load of fertilizer for growth. Those fertilizers get washed into creeks and rivers and eventually into larger waterbodies such as the Gulf of Mexico, which has a watershed that includes nearly of the entire United States (31 states) and more than 3,200 square miles. Fertilizers are thought to be a major cause of the “dead zone,” the oxygen-depleted area in the Gulf of Mexico.

Whether you choose a plastic bottle made from a fossil fuel, such as petroleum-based traditional plastics, or renewable sugarcane, recycling is still an important step. Here in the United States, only about one-quarter of plastic bottles are recycled. The overwhelming majority of those bottles still wind up in landfills. All of this underscores the importance of recycling plastics and choosing reusable containers as often as possible.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites readers to contact her at meridith.byrd@gmail.com.

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