The phrase "paper or plastic" is taking on a whole new meaning these days.
Plastics made from plants rather than petroleum are gaining market share around the globe. Derived from renewable biomass such as soy protein, cornstarch and cellulose, bioplastics are used in almost every polymer product category, from medical devices to building materials. Most, but not all, are biodegradable.
While bioplastics grab market headlines today, they are not new. Henry Ford used soy-based paints, enamels and molded plastics for the steering wheel, dashboard and knobs in his first Model T.
Celluloid, a polymer made by treating plant-based cellulose, was invented in the 1860s. It was used in hairpieces, buttons, jewelry and other items as an ivory replacement.
But the early plastic was highly flammable and replaced with petro-based polymers in the 1950s.
When cheap petro-plastics took over the polymer marketplace more than a half-century ago, environmental issues were not a consumer priority. Today, concerns about pollution, landfill demands and the energy used to manufacture disposable plastics, are driving consumer demand for renewable products.
Those concerns are also fueling new opportunities for ag-based products to enter new markets. Incorporating bioproducts into product lines could be a new revenue stream for Minnesota manufacturers. The greatest opportunities are in pressure-sensitive adhesives, foam, hardened plastics, packaging and some non-load-bearing molded products.
A growing number of Minnesota companies are getting in on the act and are already incorporating bio-based plastics into products like windows and doors, docks, furniture, and food packaging. There is tremendous opportunity to use bio-based plastics in even more products. But as with any emerging industry, some hurdles must first be cleared.
Most bio-based plastics don't have the same properties as petroleum plastics and price for equivalent plastics tend to favor the petroleum based materials. However, many research organizations, including AURI are working to minimize the differences, decrease production costs, and make bioplastics more attractive than ever.
For more information on bioplastics and what AURI is doing about them, give us a call at 507-537-7440. You can also visit us online at www.auri.org.