Science Magazine Article

The myth of historical bio-based plastics

Early bio-based plastics, which were neither clean nor green, offer lessons for today.

By Rebecca Altman

Bioplastics are a broad category of materials encompassing bio-based, biodegradable, or both bio-based and biodegradable plastics. They can be manufactured from diverse sources, including crops (e.g., corn, sugar cane, and, historically, cotton), wood pulp, fungi, and other bio-based feedstocks produced with the help of algae or microbes. Some bio-based plastics, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and polylactic acid (PLA), are biodegradable under specific environmental conditions. Others, such as bio-polypropylene (bio-PP) and bio–polyethylene terephthalate (bio-PET), are also bio-based but are chemically equivalent to their conventional counterparts and do not biodegrade. Bioplastics can also include materials designed for biodegradation that are derived from fossil fuel–based rather than bio-based sources (1). Although bioplastics represent a small and growing segment within the industry, they are not a new idea and have a long history that is often overlooked or misunderstood.