Bioplastics Become Material

[Editor's Note: This is the last part of a 10-part series of articles excerpted from our annual State of Green Business Report. The report takes a close look at the data behind the green business movement to track whether we're moving the needle on corporate sustainability. Download the free report here.]

For years, the search for alternatives to petroleum-based plastics has led researchers down a variety of paths, many of which turned out to be dead ends. Henry Ford, the automaker and showman, produced a prototype plastic car made from soybeans in 1941, but plastic from plants wilted as plastic from oil gained favor as a substitute for scarce steel during World War II.

Since the 1970s, as concern over plastic's environmental impacts grew in lockstep with the growth of plastic itself, a steady parade of innovators in both large and small companies have tried to create more environmentally benign alternatives. Few succeeded, failing to meet the demanding price and performance specifications of today's manufacturers. Now suddenly, bioplastics made from plants and agricultural materials are sprouting like -- well, weeds.

State of Green Business

Introductions of bioplastic materials and products reached a crescendo during 2010, as more mainstream companies introduced bioplastics from a dizzying array of commodities. Beverage maker Odwalla, a Coca-Cola subsidiary, said it was switching all of its single-serve drinks to bottles made almost entirely of plastic derived from molasses and sugarcane juice. (In 2009, Coke announced it would begin phasing in a similar bioplastic bottle for its flagship cola.)

Procter & Gamble is bringing sugarcane to shampoo and makeup with new packaging that will be on shelves next year. The company will start using sugarcane-based plastic packaging for certain products from its Pantene Pro-V, Covergirl and Max Factor brands, made with ethanol derived from Brazilian sugarcane.

Sugarcane is just the start. Electronics company NEC said it developed a bioplastic made with an extract from non-edible cashew nut shells and plant cellulose that is twice as strong as another bioplastic typically made from corn starch. The company says its material is not just doubly strong, but also more than twice as heat-resistant and molds in half the time as bio-plastic made from polylactic acid resin, which is typically derived from corn starch or sugarcane.