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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Biobased products hold potential to replace plastics

In a world where fossil fuel resources are becoming scarce, bio-based products could be the solution for an oil-dependant society.

Bio-based products, as defined by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, are any manufactured, commercial or industrial goods – excluding food – which are made up of biological materials or agricultural resources. These materials come from plant or animal byproducts and are not petroleum-based, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture’s website.

Today, many materials depend on petroleum or natural gas to be created. These products, such as plastic forks, plastic bags and other plastic goods are synthetically derived and take many years to decompose, if they do at all.

Bio-based items can be the solution to overflowing landfills and non-degradable products. However, if bio-based goods are to replace the traditional plastic, then there must be more funding and interest in this area of science, said UC Davis professor You-Lo Hsieh, department chair of textiles and clothing.

“There are already lots of natural products like wool, cotton and linen that are bio-based and used widespread,” Hsieh said. “I think how plastic was generated was because of science, and if more funding and research [were put] into bio-based plastics, they could replace them.”

Many items on the market today are made from natural materials and have begun to replace more common plastic products. Items such as bio-plastic forks, such as the ones in UC Davis’ dining commons, are made from cornstarch and have become more common in recent years.

Bio-based products have many advantages over the traditional petroleum-based products. By using bio-based polymers in goods, humans depend less on fossil fuels and consume less, helping decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Every pound of soy-based polymers produced instead of petroleum-based removes 2.1 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a study on the BioBased Technologies’ website.

Bio-based polymers have medical applications as well. Polylactic acid is a biodegradable polyester that can be broken down by hydrolysis, which is the breaking down of compounds in water. During surgeries, doctors use this polyester for sutures. Instead of having to open up the patients to remove them, they break down and are absorbed by the body, Hsieh said.

Fuels from natural materials, like corn-based ethanol, have been proposed to replace petroleum to power automobiles. It helps lower dependency on oil, a crucial issue in a time where oil prices are further increasing.

This solution, however, only costs the taxpayers, said Daniel Sumner, UC Davis professor of agricultural and resource economics and director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, based in Davis.

“Subsidized and protected ethanol from corn costs taxpayers, food consumers and biofuel consumers. If we want to consume ethanol for some political reason, it is cheaper to import ethanol made from sugar [than continuing to grow corn],” said Sumner in an e-mail interview.

Bio-based products have other unforeseen consequences to the economy. In order to supply the increase of demand of corn in the United States, farmers began growing more corn instead of other produce. This has led to an increase in prices of food items, making it difficult for people to purchase food.

“Of course using resources that would otherwise be used for food to produce fuel, for example, must lower food production and raise the price of food. The share of the price increase due to more highly subsidized use of corn and other crops for fuel in the general increase in prices of grain commodities is likely in the range of 25 percent or more, but other factors have been at work as well,” Sumner said.

It will take time before the issue of bio-based products is settled. However, there is not much time left, due to the scarce resources of fossil fuels. It will take years of funding and research before bioplastics completely replace petroleum-based plastics.

“I think we are behind on what we have to do,” Hsieh said.

 

NICK MARKWITH can be reached at campus@californiaaggie.com.XXX

 

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