In the business market, “green technologies” come in a variety of different forms--sometimes even in the form of a simple piece of plastic.
Associated Press reported Monday that shoppers at some Target retail stores who purchase gift cards may be surprised to learn that the cards are biodegradable. Displays in stores taking part in this initiative tout the earth-friendliness of the cards, reminding buyers to “Just make sure you spend them first” before returning the cards to the earth.
Biodegradable plastics are carving out a niche market, AP said. Such plastics, made of corn and other plant material, offer an alternative to traditional, petroleum-based plastic. It’s being used for a variety of applications, from lipstick tubes to clothing fiber to bulk food containers.
Perhaps someday such plastics could be used in consumer electronics as well. For the time being, though, biodegradable plastics are something of a mixed bag, since manufacturing them produces carbon dioxide, a contributor to global warming, AP said in its report. Plus, bioplastics don’t contain toxins like polyvinyl chloride, a boon for applications where plastic products can affect health—like in children’s toys and baby products.
The main hurdle for more widespread adoption at the moment is that these plastics cost about three times as much as other types of plastic; as a result, businesses aren’t so sure the investment would pay off.
David Cornell from the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers was quoted in the AP report a saying that adoption of biodegradable plastics is a chicken and egg scenario.
“It might someday reach that critical mass, but it has to happen very quickly,” Cornell said in the AP report.
If it does catch on more widely, bioplastic has the potential to reduce the share of U.S. petroleum consumption used in plastic, currently at 10 percent, AP said. It might also make up for the slow progress of recycling implementation in the U.S.; during 2005 only about 6 percent of the country’s plastic was recycled (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency figures).
A variety of companies are working to overcome existing problems with bioplastics, like how easily they break down. Cambridge-based Metabolix (News - Alert), AP said, has developed a plastic called Mirel that breaks down so easily it can be returned to the earth in backyard composting bins. This is the material Target is using in its gift cards, and talks are in progress with manufacturers of a variety of products ranging from razor blade handles to disposable cups.
Like other bioplastics, Mirel costs more. AP said Metabolix customers pay roughly $2.50 per pound for the material, compared with 70-90 cents per pound for petroleum-based plastic. This is an indicator of how much the price needs to come down to facilitate widespread adoption.
Other bioplastics available include NatureWorks from Cargill, Ecoflex from BASF AG, Mater-Bi from Novapont SPA and Cereplast from a company of the same name, AP said. DuPont and Braskem SA make bioplastics that are recyclable but not biodegradable—made from corn and sugar cane respectively.
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Mae Kowalke is an associate editor for TMCnet, covering VoIP, CRM, call center and wireless technologies. She also blogs for TMCnet here.