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Packaging has been the main application of many bioplastics so far. Indeed around 1% of plastics that are produced get used in packaging. Currently, polyethylene and polypropylene dominate the packaging market. This is due to the fact that they are cheap and currently have superior performance in this application.
Bioplastics might compete better in other applications where biodegradability, biocompatibility, and other properties limited to bioplastics might pose a significant advantage over the non-biodegradable plastics.
Therefore the following sections review broader innovative applications of bioplastics beyond packaging. In no particular order of importance, these include:
Recent years have seen a move towards green electronics. One of the recent innovations in the application of bioplastics in green electronics is their use in transparent conducting flexible films. These have promising applications in OLED, touchscreens, and other optoelectronics. PLA is currently the leading bioplastic candidate for this application. The practical application is currently limited by the mechanical properties and heat resistance of the bioplastics. Effects to address the limitations include blending the bioplastics with nano silver to improve physical properties and conductivity.
Bioplastics have also been used in other electronic parts such as casings, keyboards, mouse pads, and circuit board, speakers, amongst others. Electronics waste has been a challenge in recent years. This is partly due to the use of difficult-to-recover and recycled materials like PVC in the electronics. Increasing the use of biodegradable plastic parts can significantly contribute to electronic waste management.
Some might recall the point during Paris Haute Couture fashion week in 2022, when a model got on stage and had her dress sprayed on her live, on stage. This process left out the conventional cut-and-sew process for producing garments. Instead, a garment was created by ejecting the fibres from spray cans.
Non-woven fabrics are not new. However, they have always been produced using plastics like polypropylene and processes like spun bonding that involve ejecting fibers onto a surface to form layers. These are achieved using bulky equipment that requires higher temperatures or harsher solvents. A separate process is also required to compress the spun and layered fibers into sheets of fabric.
The innovation of Fabrican is based on the ability to process bioplastics under milder conditions using non-toxic solvents. The biodegradability of the garments means it will not contribute to the current global challenge of textile waste.
Other innovative applications of bioplastics in the textiles industry include biodegradable wipes, medical gowns, and other personal protective gear. Personal protective gear like face masks raised concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. These are conventionally made using nonbiodegradable plastics like polypropylene. Since many of these have to be single use for hygiene, they pose a burden on the environment. Making these out of biodegradable plastics significantly reduces their environmental impact.
After packaging, the biomedical field is the second most common area of application of bioplastics. Innovations in applications of bioplastics in biomedical fields include implantable devices like pins, screws, sutures, and sustained-release drug delivery devices. Bioplastics like PLA, PGA, and PVA are common in these applications.
The main attributes that make bioplastics attractive in these applications are biodegradability and biocompatibility. Processibility under mild conditions and/or using mild solvents is also an advantage for bioplastic use in biomedical applications. For applications where drugs, therapeutics, and active ingredients need to be loaded and blended with the bioplastic formulations, mild processing condition required for many bioplastics ensures that the potency of these ingredients is retained.
Bioplastics are finding increasing application as agricultural mulch. An application where polyethylene once dominated. Bioplastics like PHA will ultimately biodegrade in the soil after serving their purpose in water retention and weed control. This helps address the issue of microplastics in soil and eventually washing off into the aquatic environment where it gets into the food chain.
Another innovative application of bioplastics in agriculture is in biodegradable planters and seed trays. The transplant survival rate can be significantly increased using biodegradable planters that can be buried in the ground without disturbing the roots. The container will degrade in the soil making way for the roots to spread. Similarly, biodegradable nets, labels, and similar items will biodegrade after serving their purpose.
Slow-release fertilizers are made by encapsulating or blending plant nutrients like NPK into bioplastic formulations. The nutrients are released gradually as the bioplastics biodegrade in the soil over time. These have been shown to be effective in reducing fertilizer waste or overuse which could have detrimental effects on crop yield and soil health.
Bioplastics application in cosmetics can significantly contribute towards the increased share of bioplastics in the plastic market. As a consumer-driven industry, cosmetics companies are more compelled to heed the consumer’s personal preference.
With increased awareness of the adverse impact of non-biodegradable plastics, more consumers are demanding cosmetics products that implement more sustainable alternatives. Products like toothbrushes, hair brushes, wipes, and facial scrubs made using bioplastics instead of conventional plastics are seeing increased demand.
Recently microbeads typically made using non-biodegradable plastics raised concerns. Governments in some parts of the world like the USA have banned the use of synthetic microplastics in cosmetic products like bath scrubs. Since bioplastics do not pose the same risk, they are more sustainable alternatives to such products. In fact, PHA microbeads have been shown to biodegrade in wastewater treatment plants.
From electric vehicles to bicycles, manufacturers are looking at ways to make their products more sustainable. Vehicles have always used plastics in one way or the other. Lightings, fluid tanks, dashboards, mats, seat cover handles, cases, seatbelts, and wipers are some of the parts that make use of plastics. Plastics like ABS, PMMA, nylon, and PVC are some of the plastics that have been used in vehicles. These are increasingly being replaced by more sustainable options like biodegradable plastics and bio-based synthetic plastics.
The advantage of using biodegradable comes into play, especially at the end-of-life of the vehicle or the vehicle parts. Figure x is an image of a dump yard in China where thousands of out-of-use electric vehicles are parked. As newer models are made or the care becomes obsolete, they get dumped. This will be less of a burden on the environment if as many parts are made from biodegradable materials as possible.
Figure 1. Out-of-use electric vehicles in a dump yard. (Image source: Qilai Shen, Bloomberg)
The application of PLA in 3D printing is well established. Nevertheless, the advanced application of 3D printing calls for the incorporation of a wider range of bioplastics in 3D printing. From 3D-printed cakes to 3D-printed prosthetics and tissue scaffolds, more bioplastics are required to achieve a wider range of material specifications and processing requirements.
Recent innovation in 3D printable bioplastics includes 3D printing resins that have shape memory features. Such innovations allow for 3D printing products that better mimic natural materials and tissue. Bioplastics formulation can be optimized using different blends and natural additives to achieve diverse 3D printing requirements.
So whatever innovative way you are looking to integrate bioplastics, VEnvirotech has a diverse range of bioplastics formulations that can be tailored to meet your needs. Our bioplastics are bio-based and incorporate natural additives extracted from organic waste from food processing, brewery, and other processing waste.