Bioplastics: Plastics' Greener Cousin

There's been so much in the news lately about bad plastics -- including right here in this column -- that I thought I should write about a potentially good thing happening with them.

Bioplastics, plant-based biodegradable plastics, are gradually replacing plastics made from petroleum. They comprise only a small portion of the plastics, but as soaring prices and politics make petroleum an expensive and controversial raw material, bioplastics are an increasingly attractive alternative.

The Guardian reported recently that the sector is growing by 20% to 30% a year.

Major players include NatureWorks, owned by Cargill and Japanese company Teijin Ltd.; Mirel, a joint venture between Archer Daniels Midland ( ADM) and biotech firm Metabolix ( MBLX); Cereplast; Italian firm Novamont and Australia's Plantic Technologies, which has a marketing agreement in the U.S. with Dupont ( DD).

The Biodegradable Products Institute has a list of others.

The plastic fibers these companies manufacture are indistinguishable from conventional plastics. Chances are good that you've already bought products containing or packaged in bioplastic -- without even knowing it.

Toyota ( TM) has used it to make components for the Prius and Raum. Novamont's bioplastic is a component in Goodyear ( GT) Tires. Sony ( SNE) puts bioplastic in its Walkman. Target ( TGT) uses it for its gift cards.

The brand that seems to have the most reach so far, Natureworks, has seen its plastic used to pack fresh veggies, salad greens and cut fruit sold at Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Kroger ( KR), in packaging for Green Mountain Coffee Roaster ( GMCR) coffees, and in sheets sold at Target and J.C. Penney ( JCP).

A lipstick case it developed for Cargo Cosmetics won an honorable mention a few weeks ago when Dupont ( DD) handed out its annual awards for packaging innovation.

No surprise: Plantic also won a Dupont award for chocolate packaging that it developed for Euro-retailer Marks & Spencer.

Bioplastics are made in different ways from starchy or sugary plants like potatoes, corn and sugar cane. Regardless of the method, the end result is a material that has the durability, flexibility and versatility of plastic, but with better "green cred."

Bioplastics have their faults -- and critics are happy to harp on them. But on balance they seem like a good idea. Unlike the case with many other green solutions, most of these issues have solutions.

The upside of these plastics is that they are made from renewable resources. As the Sustainable Business blog points out, this is a step backward of sorts to the early 20th century, when manufactured products were largely plant-based and petroleum was not yet a ubiquitous raw material.

Bioplastics generate fewer toxins and use less fossil fuel during the manufacturing process, can often be incinerated cleanly and will compost down to nothing under the right circumstances -- sometimes in home compost bins. Reportedly they even get a little melty if they're left out in the sun too long.

They can also often be reshaped into the same product over and over again, which can't be said of all plastics.

The downside: They are still industrial products, and are made from plants that are farmed industrially -- with all the fuel and chemical use that implies.

Moreover, a lot of U.S. bioplastic comes from genetically modified plant matter, which is controversial. Future500, a nonprofit that partners with large corporations on sustainability, is partnering with the industry to decrease its reliance on genetically modified crops, among other initiatives. One diaper company, Nature Babycare, uses bioplastic made from corn grown in Italy, which prohibits genetically modified crops.

Critics complain that virtually no public recycling programs accept bottles and other packaging made from these resins, so they mostly wind up in landfills where a lack of oxygen makes them no more biodegradable than regular plastic.

But it's possible that municipalities will take up recycling of these materials as they become more common.

Wade Groetsch, CEO of Noble Juice, which uses Nature Works bottles, told me recently he would like to see these plastics have their own recycling number, which would facilitate recycling.

At the moment they're lumped into the #7 " miscellaneous" category, which contains some controversial materials and is often omitted from public recycling programs.

Widespread public composting is probably farther off, unfortunately.

In the meantime, I want to see for myself how easily these items break down.

I happen to have access to used Nature Babycare diapers (via my daughter) and I recently bought a few bottles of Noble Juice. I plan to toss them in my backyard compost bin this spring to see whether they'll break down and how long it takes. The diapers are supposed to go to pieces in about 40 days and the bottles in about 80.

I'll report back to let you know how it goes and whether you want to try this at home, too.
Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.