Soil holds key to polymers

16 May 2005

A few years ago plastics made from agricultural products such as corn, sugar beet and cane or vegetable oil were regarded by many as slightly quirky fads of the environmental lobby – interesting, but expensive; green, but unlikely to catch on.

Today, if I were to look for a safe bet, I'd be putting money on an important future for these materials – a future assured by, yes, a more environmentally aware world, but also an industrialized world desperate to ensure energy and materials for the masses at a reasonable price. Spiralling oil prices have given bioplastics the boost they needed to push them towards mainstream polymer technology. If RFID is the buzzword in packaging and converting circles this year bioplastics and associated nanotechnologies are hard on their heels in the lexicography of trendsetters.

Proof of this if needed was the undoubted success of the inaugural special exhibition 'Bioplastics in Packaging' at the recent interpack exhibition. It proved a major draw at the leading international trade fair organized by the Düsseldorf Exhibition Centre in conjunction with The International Biodegradable Polymers Association and Working Groups (IBAW). More than 10,000 trade visitors of the record 176,000 visitors to interpack (2002: 174,042) came to gather information on the materials and packaging produced from them. The exhibitors from Europe, the USA and Japan had a broad range of products on display, including food packaging used in European supermarkets. And, when I stepped inside the show within the show, it was impossible to talk to any of them without a wait in a queue. Other drivers in favour of bioplastics in packaging include political and agricultural lobbies. In future, for example, compostable packaging will be favoured by German packaging legislation, which will exempt them from the 'Green Dot' fees. Money always talks!

And high ranking representatives from European agricultural associations regard the "high tech products from the fields", as a new source of income for the farmers, and an opportunity to create a new image for agriculture.

Will the corn and sugar producing fields and plantations be the oil wells of the future? I have a feeling the answer is not only "Yes", but that it will also happen a lot sooner than you think.

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