How degrading? University of Minnesota experiments degradable plastics

New approach helps material stand up better at higher temperatures, making it more appropriate for packaging applications.

Marc Hillmyer, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers says we need to develop alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics and move toward a sustainable polymer industry. (Image courtesy of University of Minnesota)

The University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul is reporting that its chemistry department and Center for Sustainable Polymers have created a line of degradable plastics made from polylactides (PLAs).

Skeptical? You have reason to be. That's because PLAs have been around for a while and have historically had some limitations. For example, PLA-dervice plastics can soften up a higher temperatures, which has made them tough to use for applications related to food or beverages. The university believes that its new approach, however, will make for more potential applications. One of the main ingredients for its new approach is soy oil.

Marc Hillmyer, who is the school's Distinguished McKnight University Professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers, said applications could include bottles, microwave trays, or mobile phone and appliance cases.

In a press release describing the research, Dr. Dharma Kodali, a professor with university's department of bioproducts and biosystems, noted:

"The currently used plasticizers, called phthalates, are petroleum-derived, non-renewable materials. The new plasticizers synthesized in our lab could be a viable replacement for petroleum-derived plasticizers, as they are comparable in price and performance but are safer, are made from renewable resources, and degrade readily if leaked into environment."

Even if you don't buy the idea that phthalates are bad for the environment, they have been shown to be bad for humans. Some studies have shown them to be carcinogenic.

So, this is a research and development project and isn't a proven technology. But the news out of Minnesota is another demonstration that biodegradable plastics are gaining more support. In fact, some projections released last week by MarketsandMarkets, a research firm, suggests that the market will demonstrate a compound annual growth rate of 20.24 percent from 2011 to 2016 to reach 2,330 thousand metric tons. Starch-based plastics are anticipated to claim the most share, but PLA-based plastics will lead revenue standpoint. One of the broadest applications for these materials will be in the form of sustainable packaging.

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