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  (Source: University of Pittsburgh)
Chemical processing and the farming required to produce biopolymers make them less environmentally friendly

University of Pittsburgh researchers have found that plant-based plastics are not more environmentally friendly than petroleum-derived plastics. 

Michelangelo Tabone, lead author of the study, along with University of Pittsburgh researchers Amy Landis, James Cregg and Eric Beckman have analyzed the environmental benefits of plant-based plastics versus oil-based plastics and found that biopolymers are not as green as previously thought. 

While biopolymers are a more environmentally friendly materials that beat other plastics when it comes to toxicity and biodegradability, the chemical processing and farming required to create this material makes it not so eco-friendly. 

Researchers came to this conclusion by observing 12 plastics. Seven of them were petroleum-based polymers, four were biopolymers and one was a hybrid of the two. Researchers then gauged the health and environmental effects of the raw materials, energy and chemicals used to create one ounce of plastic pellets by performing a life-cycle assessment (LCA) on each polymer in its preproduction stage. When the polymer reached its "finished form," researchers checked each polymer again for energy efficiency, toxicity, wastefulness and biodegradability. 

The study concluded that biopolymers were more abundant polluters than the others during the production process. The reason for this, according to researchers, was because of extensive land use for farming, the intense chemical processing, pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, the study says the four biopolymers were "the largest contributors to ozone depletion." These biopolymers also beat the petroleum-based polymers when it came to carcinogen emissions and ecotoxicity. 

Despite the negative aspects of the path to production of biopolymers, this material trumped conventional polymers once it was put to use. Biopolymers are more eco-friendly after production. On the other hand, "ubiquitous" plastic polypropylene is a clean polymer to produce, but becomes less eco-friendly once put to use. The University of Pittsburgh researchers have provided a chart to show environmental contributions of each polymer.

This study was published in Environmental Science and Technology.

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Petroleum demand
By Raiders12 on 10/25/2010 8:10:02 AM , Rating: 3
Despite them having more pollutants during the production process, they are still advantageous. We can clean up the production process, but we cannot replenish the diminishing petroleum supply. The simple fact that bio materials are renewable trumps petroleum. I'm sure the process can be cleaned up and optimized. This is the same lazy attitude that has us so dependent on oil to begin with..."Well petroleum is so much easier...,etc etc"

RE: Petroleum demand
By AlexWade on 10/25/2010 9:00:21 AM , Rating: 2
While a valid point, the world still has enough known oil reserves to last for several decades. Years ago I read about a new oil reserve found of Brazil that initial estimates said had enough oil for all of North and South America for a decade at current consumption. Fossil fuels are still the cheapest source of energy and will continue to be for a long time. I have read about some theories that suggest the earth makes oil. The theory was based on the fact that large oil reserves are are still found. (Sorry, I don't have links or references.) One of the chief things keeping America on foreign oil is bureaucracy and special interests.

RE: Petroleum demand
By mcnabney on 10/25/2010 9:19:40 AM , Rating: 2
Of course the world 'makes oil', how do you think it got there in the first place, fairies? The earth will make plenty more oil as the thousands of millenia tick by.

The current problem is that we are no longer 'finding' new oil at a rate that keeps up with production. In fact, we aren't exactly sure how much oil we have right now since many OPEC nations keep their reserve estimations as State secrets. I agree that we still have a lot of oil left, but I think that it would be wiser to stop using it for transportation so much. There are a whole lot of great uses for petroleum and natural gas besides just burning them to move our cars and heat our homes.

I would also point out that recoverablility has everything to do with price. The US actually has a ton of oil up in the Dakotas, but it is deep and under the equivalent of an iron plate, making drilling for it extremely expensive. New technology will make more oil commercially viable as well.

RE: Petroleum demand
By theArchMichael on 10/25/2010 9:34:02 AM , Rating: 3
I think the OP was inferring that we are most likely consuming oil at a greater rate than it is being 'made'. In this case, it may be prudent to conserve some of these resources where possible in case future technologies require them.

RE: Petroleum demand
By knutjb on 10/25/2010 10:38:10 AM , Rating: 2
I would also point out that recoverablility has everything to do with price. The US actually has a ton of oil up in the Dakotas, but it is deep and under the equivalent of an iron plate, making drilling for it extremely expensive.
Uh, no. I know a geologist who was called out to a rig drilling a water well in South Dakota where they hit oil at 400 feet. When Obama shutdown drilling in the Gulf the drillers moved up to North Dakota. The oil has paraffin and requires some heat to extract it and/or pump it, particularly in cold weather.

The danger with oil isn't the quantity, there is far more than most want to believe, its who owns the rights to that oil, i.e. China. They just bought out Conoco's rights to Canada's massive oil sands and others around the world. Russia going into the arctic region and planting flags at the bottom of the ocean to claim those oil rights.

Look at who is buying up oils rights and ask why, you will be surprised by the answers. Foreign companies/countries are not restricted by our laws on cartels and will operate like OPEC. They will place tremendous political pressures by restricting the world supply to get their way. Oil is about power.

RE: Petroleum demand
By Iaiken on 10/25/2010 12:06:31 PM , Rating: 2
hey just bought out Conoco's rights to Canada's massive oil sands and others around the world.

You make it sound like they bought up a significant amount when in fact Sinopec only purchased a 9% stake in Syncrude Canada Ltd. Furthermore, the Chinese government only owns about a 17% average stake in Canadas oil sands businesses (counting only those businesses where it owns more than a 5% stake, aggregated by value).

You also forgot to mention that under Canadian law it is illegal for a state-owned corporations to hold controlling shares of anything classified as a strategic resource. These include all manner of minerals, coal, oil, gas and water.

The government has the power to seize shares from state-owned corporations if it is found that several different state-owned corporations shares combine to a controlling share. In these cases, the government pays out current market value for enough of those shares to remove the controlling interest and puts them back up for sale to the public.

Foreign companies/countries are not restricted by our laws on cartels and will operate like OPEC. They will place tremendous political pressures by restricting the world supply to get their way.

This is precisely why the above laws and enforcement strategies were enacted.

RE: Petroleum demand
By nafhan on 10/25/2010 10:14:18 AM , Rating: 2
A little devil's advocate here:
We've got oil, so we should use it. This article and others have shown that we've got viable, if expensive, alternative sources that can and may (one day) replace oil. The advantages to not using oil are therefore relatively minor (i.e. it's going to get used, it's just a matter of when).
Plus, just because one country stops using it, others probably will not. By not using it ourselves, we could be giving those countries a prolonged period of economic advantage.
I'm not advocating being wasteful with it, of course. I'm syaing use it while we can and continue work on bringing down the cost of alternative petro-chemical sources.

RE: Petroleum demand
By lelias2k on 10/25/2010 12:16:34 PM , Rating: 2
Sure, as the #1 country in the world why should we serve as an example of proactive behavior...

RE: Petroleum demand
By nafhan on 10/25/2010 2:37:34 PM , Rating: 2
why should we serve as an example of proactive behavior
Good question, and I can't really give you a good answer for it.

RE: Petroleum demand
By Celebrochan on 10/25/2010 11:38:03 AM , Rating: 2
So the effect of farming showed that plant based plastics are worse for the environment than oil based plastics... did they take the effects of oil spills / drilling into account in that calculation?

RE: Petroleum demand
By lelias2k on 10/25/2010 12:25:22 PM , Rating: 2
Or plastic in our landfills and in the Great Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre?

What about all the cancer-related cases due to BPA in our plastic bottles? (I know, really hard to measure that one...)

There are plenty of reasons to stop using oil, and just one to continue: money.

By icrf on 10/25/2010 9:24:54 AM , Rating: 2
Does the study take into account whether the finished products are recycled? Can the plant-based plastics be recycled? Does recycling the oil-based plastics negate most of their post-use environmental problems?

RE: Recycling?
By jmatthan on 10/25/2010 10:43:07 PM , Rating: 2
Does anyone remember that ICI started to make LDPE using alcohol - and the last standing plant was in Calcutta, India. I fought to save it in the 70s as alcohol technology for monomers is a recycling oriented process based on biological processes. This study only looked at biopolymers and not the wider concept of Agro Polymers which would show a completely different picture! Take for instance Natural Rubber, cashew nut shell liquid based polymers, furfural based polymers from agro sources. Alcohol technology as a route to polymers has been virtually killed! Or am I wrong?

Practical and in practice.
By GuinnessKMF on 10/25/2010 7:54:33 AM , Rating: 2
I'm sure the study was a bit more indepth that was redux'd here, so it's hard for me to draw any solid conclusions without looking into it more, (and it's not like any of my conclusions posted on the internet would cause a change in policy), but it's pretty clear to me that ideally we would need to measure the environmental effects of the recycling process, and remove the "post-production" issues entirely through recycling and reuse.

I would also be curious to know how much of the efficiencies in current petroleum plastics come from economy of scale, and conversely how much petroleum waste would be created by not using the byproduct of gasoline to create plastic (if any).

its all relative
By Paj on 10/25/2010 8:29:18 AM , Rating: 2
You could have something thats very clean to produce, but if it lasts for 20,000 years before breaking down, then its kind of pointless.

Total impact
By tastyratz on 10/25/2010 8:51:52 AM , Rating: 2
The article tips in one direction for footprint, and on direction for end result... What about a total estimated product lifcycle impact?
If a product was made with either - say water bottles. If 1 month after production (alloting time for production shipping retail stocking sale and consumption) Then immediately thrown away... What would be the overall impact then? obviously timline has a huge impact and is entirely subjective but a plot could be drawn over a timescale covering total pollution.

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