History of Bioplastic

Bioplastics are not as new as they might first appear. There have been almost 200 years of development and use of bioplastics. This has brought successes, but also failures, which together form valuable lessons. The growth of green products across sectors has brought new opportunities for bioplastics. However, the prefix bio- does not guarantee the unconditional sustainability of the material. History offers us deterrent cases where the production of bioplastics has led to environmental disasters. Knowledge of these events helps us to guide the current development of new materials and to keep in mind the wider context of the ecological production of bioplastics.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

The First Plastics Were Bio-Based

The first commercially used plastics were bioplastics. Synthetic plastics (oil-based) appeared at the beginning of the 20th century but did not take off until after World War I. By contrast, bioplastics began to be used commercially in the mid-19th century.

Ebonite, gutta-percha, latex

Ebonite made by vulcanization of natural rubber was first introduced in 1851 as a substitute for ebony wood. Like natural rubber, gutta-percha and latex can also be extracted. Gutta-percha was a key material for insulating the undersea telegraph networks linking the British colonies. Within decades, the gutta-percha trees were almost wiped out. Collecting the gum and latex from the trees was dangerous work, as was the further processing of the rubber – workers were exposed to toxic fumes in the vulcanization process, leading to neurodegenerative disorders. Carbon disulfide gas, which was the main cause of the workers’ diseases, is also used in the production of viscose.

Celluloid

In 1856, celluloid was first made as a cheap substitute for ivory, tortoiseshell and pearl by reacting nitrocellulose with camphor. Celluloid was also used for photographic film manufacturing. The development of photography and cinematography in the late 19th century caused the devastation of Taiwan’s forests where the camphor tree was harvested. Celluloid replaced ivory, but there was still no decline in elephant hunting. Celluloid is highly flammable and explosive – its production has been associated with workplace fatalities.

Viscose

Viscose, a textile fibre made from cellulose, was introduced in 1884 to replace silk. Viscose boomed during World War II and is still a popular textile material to this day. The production of viscose was accompanied by deforestation in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and environmental pollution from dioxins, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Galalith

In 1897, Galalith was created by the reaction of formaldehyde and casein, a protein abundant in milk, and started a revolution in button manufacturing. Production of Galalith was curtailed during World War II due to milk shortages and subsequently, Galalith was displaced by synthetic plastics.

The Advent of the Petrochemical Industry

In 1907, Bakelite was created from phenols and formaldehyde. Bakelite was the first of a series of synthetic plastics that gradually displaced the original bioplastics due to their better material properties and low cost. World War II accelerated the development of the petrochemical industry and the focus on plastics made from petroleum. The war years highlighted the disadvantage of bioplastics competing with food production – food and feed security was a priority and bioplastics were replaced by fully synthetic plastics. The production of plastics not from petroleum itself but from by-products of the petrochemical industry made production costs even lower. This caused a shift away from bioplastics, whose production costs and material properties could not compete with oil-based products. In recent decades, as society has struggled with the adverse effects of plastic littering and plastic production, bioplastics have experienced a renaissance. In particular, biodegradable materials are in the spotlight and sustainability is the main criterion for their production.

References

Altman, R. The myth of historical bio-based plastics. Science. 2021, 373(6550): 47. doi: 10.1126/science.abj1003.