To counter plastic pollution, the fledgling trail of biosourced materials

Biodegradable and compostable PLA (polylactic acid) plastic granules, in a laboratory of Carbiolice, a subsidiary of Carbios, in Riom (Puy-de-Dôme), on March 14, 2019.

The estimates of Plastics Europe, an ociation of manufacturers based in Brussels, are formal: the plastic is 98.5% of fossil origin. A hegemony that contrasts with the beginnings of materials with plastic properties in the 19e century, when these were taken from nature: latex from rubber trees to make rubber, cellulose from wood for viscose used in textiles, casein from milk for glues, etc.

In the XXe century, it is a succession of “laboratory curiosities”as noted in the plastics encyclopedia of the Utopia movement, which led to the marketing of synthetic products: Bakelite in 1909, PVC and polystyrene in 1933, Plexiglas the following year, Nylon in 1939, silicone in 1940… “The whole world can be plasticized, and life itself”wrote Roland Barthes in Mythologiesin 1957.

In a strange return to square one, research is now focusing on biom, to develop “100% biosourced” or “biocomposite” plastic materials. “The idea is to reduce the rate of synthetic molecules, by introducing natural fibers into the plastic material which provide mechanical reinforcement and allow other functionalities”explains José-Marie Lopez-Cuesta, professor at the Materials Center of Mines d’Alès.

In Haute-Garonne, for example, the Cobratex company manufactures reusable packaging from bamboo. In Seine-et-Marne, Polybiom produces resins, glues and coatings based on miscanthus, a herbaceous native to Africa that has become acclimatized to Europe. In Finistère, Kaïros uses linen to make decorations and displays offering the same characteristics as plastic. In Yonne, APM puts hemp in automotive interior equipment.

Only a quarter is biodegradable

Other plastics with the wind in their sails: polyhydroxyalkanoates produced by bacteria, as well as plastics obtained with polylactic acid resulting from the fermentation of sugar or corn starch and sugar cane. Currently, global bioplastics production capacity stands at 2.2 million tonnes, but that number could triple by 2027.

While three-quarters of these materials are biosourced (of biological or plant origin), only one-quarter is biodegradable (decomposes naturally). “There is no link between biobased and biodegradable”would like to remind Luc Averous, professor at the ECPM in Strasbourg. “A plastic can be of fossil origin and biodegradable. This is the case of polycaprolactone, which replaces plaster when repairing a broken arm. »

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