19 Examples of Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics

Biodegradable plastics are a type of plastic that can break down naturally over time. Unlike regular plastics, which can last for hundreds of years, biodegradable plastics are made to decompose much faster. This decomposition happens when tiny organisms like bacteria or fungi eat away the plastic, turning it into water, carbon dioxide, and compost-like material. This process usually happens in a special environment, where there is a lot of moisture and microorganisms. The idea behind biodegradable plastics is to reduce pollution and waste by creating plastics that won’t stay in the environment for a very long time. Here are some common examples of biodegradable plastics:

Examples

1. Polylactic Acid (PLA) 

 

Polylactic Acid

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is made from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane, instead of petroleum. This makes PLA a biodegradable plastic and an eco-friendly choice. It is a great alternative to traditional plastics because it can decompose naturally, turning into harmless substances like water and carbon dioxide under the right conditions. PLA is used in a variety of products, including food packaging, disposable tableware, and biodegradable medical devices like sutures and implants. It is also popular in 3D printing due to its ease of use and low toxicity. However, PLA has some downsides too, such as it requires specific conditions to decompose properly, and it is not as heat-resistant as traditional plastics, which can limit its use in some products.

2. Starch-based Plastics 

Starch-based Plastics 

Starch-based plastics are made primarily from starch, a natural polymer found in plants like corn, potatoes, and wheat. This starch is then mixed with other biodegradable materials, like polylactic acid (PLA), to make it more durable and flexible. The resulting material can be molded and used just like traditional plastic. Starch-based plastics are commonly found in packaging materials, bags, and disposable items like cutlery and plates. They are also used in agricultural applications, such as biodegradable plant pots. However, there are some drawbacks. For example, starch-based plastics may not be as strong or heat-resistant as conventional plastics, which limits their use in some products. They also require specific conditions to break down properly and won’t just decompose in any environment.

3. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) 

Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) 

Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) are produced naturally by microorganisms, which are fed with certain nutrients under controlled conditions. The PHA is then extracted and processed into a plastic. PHA is used in a variety of products, such as packaging materials, bags, and containers. It is also found in medical applications like sutures and implants because it is biocompatible. PHA degrades completely in natural environments, including in the ocean, which makes it a great alternative to traditional plastics that contribute to pollution. Also, since it is made by microorganisms, it doesn’t require plants like corn or sugarcane, avoiding competition with food resources. However, one downside is that producing PHA can be more expensive than making traditional plastics, and it may not be as strong or durable in some applications.

4. Polybutylene Succinate (PBS) 

Polybutylene Succinate (PBS) 

Polybutylene Succinate (PBS) is made from succinic acid and butanediol, which can be derived either from petroleum or renewable resources like corn or sugar beets. PBS is commonly used in agricultural applications, like mulch films that degrade in the soil after a growing season, reducing the need for removal and disposal. It is also used in packaging, disposable cutlery, and compost bags. PBS is biodegradable and more sustainable than petroleum-based plastics. However, PBS is not as widely available as other bioplastics and can be more expensive to produce. Also, its biodegradation rate can vary depending on the environment, and it may not decompose as quickly in colder or less active microbial environments.

5. Polybutylene Adipate Terephthalate (PBAT) 

Polybutylene Adipate Terephthalate (PBAT) 

Polybutylene Adipate Terephthalate (PBAT) is a biodegradable plastic made by chemically combining adipic acid and butanediol (to make polybutylene adipate) and terephthalic acid (to make polybutylene terephthalate). PBAT is flexible and strong and is commonly used in making of compostable bags, agricultural films, and packaging materials. Like many bioplastics, PBAT is generally more expensive to produce than conventional plastics.

6. Polycaprolactone (PCL) 

Polycaprolactone (PCL) 

Polycaprolactone (PCL) is made by linking together many small molecules called caprolactone under certain chemical conditions. PCL melts at around 60°C (140°F), which is a much lower temperature than the temperature required for most plastics to melt. This property makes it very easy to shape and mold PCL when heated, making it popular for various applications including medical uses, like sutures and drug delivery systems because it is safe for the body and breaks down over time. It is also popular in 3D printing, where its low melting point and ease of shaping are big advantages. However, PCL degrades slower than some other bioplastics, especially in colder environments. It is also more expensive to produce compared to some conventional plastics.

7. Polyglycolic Acid (PGA) 

Polyglycolic acid suture

Polyglycolic Acid (PGA) is made from glycolic acid. PGA has a high melting point and great strength. PGA is most commonly used in the medical field, especially in surgical sutures and other devices that are designed to dissolve in the body after they have served their purpose. PGA’s combination of strength, biodegradability, and compatibility with the human body makes it a highly valuable material in medical applications, despite its higher cost, high melting point, and specific processing requirements.

8. Cellulose-based Plastics 

Cellulose-based Plastics 

Cellulose-based plastics are often found in applications like packaging, bags, and wrapping. They are also used in some rigid forms for things like eyeglass frames and automotive parts. Since cellulose-based plastics are made from renewable plant materials, they are biodegradable and eco-friendly. However, there are some drawbacks. The chemical modifications needed can sometimes involve toxic substances, and the biodegradability can vary depending on the specific formulation and environmental conditions.

9. Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA/PVOH) 

Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA/PVOH) 

Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA or PVOH) is a water-soluble biodegradable plastic. PVA is made from polyvinyl acetate, a material derived from petroleum, through a process called alcoholysis, where the acetate groups in polyvinyl acetate are replaced with alcohol groups. This change in acetate groups makes the plastic not only biodegradable but also soluble in water. PVA is widely used in packaging, especially for products that benefit from water-soluble packaging, like dishwasher detergent pods. It is also used in paper coatings, feminine hygiene products, and some medical applications like drug delivery systems. PVA doesn’t contribute to long-term pollution since it dissolves in water and then biodegrades. This characteristic makes it very useful for certain applications where the plastic needs to disappear after use, like in packaging for detergents or agricultural films that dissolve in the soil. However, PVA’s water solubility can also be a limitation as it can’t be used in conditions where water resistance is needed. Also, since it is derived from petroleum, its production still relies on non-renewable resources.

10. Thermoplastic Starch (TPS) 

Thermoplastic Starch (TPS) 

Thermoplastic Starch (TPS) is a biodegradable plastic made primarily from starch. To make TPS, starch is extracted from plants like corn, potatoes, or wheat and then mixed with plasticizers (like glycerol or sorbitol) to make it more flexible. This process turns the starch into a material that can be shaped and molded when heated, just like traditional plastic. TPS is often used in packaging materials, bags, and disposable items like cutlery and plates. Being a renewable plant resource, TPS is more sustainable than plastics derived from petroleum. It also biodegrades quickly under the right conditions, reducing environmental pollution. However, TPS is not as strong or durable as conventional plastics, and it can be sensitive to moisture, which can limit its use in some products. Also, its production can compete with food resources, as it is made from crops that could be used for food.

11. Aliphatic-Aromatic Copolyesters 

Aliphatic-Aromatic Copolyesters 

Aliphatic-Aromatic Copolyesters are synthesized by chemically bonding aliphatic acids (like succinic or adipic acid) with aromatic acids (like terephthalic acid). This combination creates a material that has the beneficial properties of both components: the biodegradability of aliphatic compounds and the strength and durability of aromatic compounds. Aliphatic-aromatic copolyesters are often found in packaging materials, agricultural films, and disposable items like shopping bags. Their strength and biodegradability make them a good option for products that need to last for a while but also break down easily once disposed of. These copolyesters are stronger and more durable than many other biodegradable plastics, and they also degrade well in composting environments. However, their production can be more complex and costly than traditional plastics. Also, the presence of aromatic components, often derived from petroleum, means they are not entirely made from renewable resources.

12. Polyanhydrides 

Polyanhydrides 

Polyanhydrides are designed to slowly release medication over time as they degrade in the body, eliminating the need for repeated dosing. This makes them particularly useful for medical treatments that require a steady, controlled release of drugs. They are used in pharmaceuticals and drug-delivery devices (wafers). However, their sensitivity to water and the body’s natural fluids can also be a disadvantage as it limits their use in some medical applications. Additionally, the production of polyanhydrides can be complex and costly.

13. Polyurethane 

Polyurethane 

Polyurethane is derived from vegetable oils extracted from plants like soybeans, sunflowers, or castor beans. These oils are chemically modified to react with isocyanates, forming a polymer known as polyurethane. These vegetable oil-based polyurethanes are made from renewable resources, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. They are used in a variety of applications, including foams for mattresses and furniture, coatings for floors and furniture, and adhesives. However, these polyurethanes might not have the same performance characteristics as traditional ones in all applications. Additionally, the use of agricultural land for producing industrial oils can raise concerns about food supply and land use.

14. Chitosan-based Plastics 

Chitosan-based Plastics 

Chitosan-based plastics are made from chitosan, which is produced by treating the chitin from the shells of crustaceans (like crabs, shrimp, and lobsters) with chemicals that remove its acetyl groups, transforming it into a form that can be used to make plastic. Chitosan-based plastics are used in biomedical applications, like wound dressings and drug delivery systems, due to their biocompatibility and biodegradability. They are also used in water treatment and food packaging. The strength and flexibility of chitosan plastics can be less than conventional plastics, limiting their use in some applications. Also, the reliance on shellfish means that people with allergies might have concerns, though processed chitosan is generally considered safe.

15. Gelatin-based Plastics 

Gelatin-based Plastics 

To make gelatin-based plastics, gelatin is first extracted through a process of boiling collagen, which is present in animal parts (skin, bones, connective tissues, etc.), and then it is mixed with glycerin, to give it plastic-like properties. Gelatin-based plastics are found in applications where biodegradability is particularly important, such as in pharmaceutical capsules, edible films for food packaging, and some medical devices. These plastics offer an alternative that is less harmful to the environment. However, these plastics are not as strong or durable as synthetic plastics, and they are sensitive to moisture, which can limit their use in some products. Additionally, being animal-derived, they might not be suitable for vegetarians or vegans.

16. Pectin-based Plastics 

Pectin-based Plastics 

Pectin-based plastics are made from pectin, a natural substance found in the cell walls of citrus fruits and apples. To create these plastics, pectin is extracted from fruit waste and then mixed with other natural ingredients, such as glycerol, to make it more pliable and plastic-like. This process transforms pectin into a material that can be used similarly to conventional plastics. Pectin-based plastics are primarily used in edible films for food packaging, which can help to extend the shelf life of fresh produce. They are also explored for use in pharmaceuticals and biodegradable medical products. However, some of their limitations include lesser durability than synthetic plastics and their moisture sensitivity, which can restrict their use in certain applications.

17. Soy Protein-based Plastics 

Soy Protein-based Plastics

Soy protein-based plastics are made from soy protein extracted from soybeans, which are mixed with plasticizers and other natural additives. This mixture is then heated and molded into plastics. Soy protein-based plastics are found in various applications, including packaging materials, disposable plates and utensils, agricultural products, and biodegradable films and coatings. There are some disadvantages as well. Soy protein plastics may not be as strong or durable as conventional plastics, and their water sensitivity can limit their use in certain products. Additionally, the use of soybeans for plastic production can raise concerns about land use and food supply.

18. Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) 

Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) 

Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) is made from furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), which is derived from plant-based sugars, and ethylene glycol. PEF is mainly used in packaging, particularly for beverages and food, due to its excellent barrier properties. It helps in preserving the freshness and extending the shelf life of products. PEF has superior barrier properties compared to other plastics, meaning it can better prevent gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen from passing through, which is beneficial for packaging applications.

19. Lignin-based Plastics 

Lignin-based Plastics 

Lignin-based plastics are made from lignin, a complex organic polymer found abundantly in the cell walls of plants, especially in wood and bark. Lignin-based plastics are used in packaging, agricultural films, and composites, where biodegradability is an advantage. They are also being explored for use in automotive parts and construction materials. However, there are some limitations. Lignin-based plastics may not have the same strength or flexibility as synthetic plastics, and the technology for their production is still being developed and refined.

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