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  (Source: greenvisionenterprises.com)

  (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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