Sugar Beet Plastic: A Sweet Alternative
Sugar beets are full of many useful materials: their roots are packed with sugar and their fibrous pulp is widely used for animal feed. Less well known perhaps is that their residues can be converted into fatty acids that can then be transformed into fully biodegradable bioplastics called PHA’s (or Polyhydroxyalkanoate).
Researchers such as those at Wageningen UR, with their project ‘Bottles Made from Biopolymers,’ are looking at the feasibility of making soft drink plastic bottles entirely from sugar beets. Their hope is that fully biodegradable sugar beet plastics will not only reduce pollution, but also ultimately replace the widely used petroleum-based plastics that pose numerous concerns for humans, wildlife and natural ecosystems. And while it has been determined that sugar beet plastic does have the potential to act as a suitable replacement for petroleum as a raw plastic material, a prime issue at this point is the cost and efficiency of its production process. Wageningen UR’s research is therefore now focusing on how building blocks derived from sugar beets can be used more efficiently in the production of plastic.
Industry giants such as Coca-Cola have caught on to the idea and are investing in the technology themselves with the belief that because of the volatile market prices of petroleum, the cost of plant-based plastics will over time will become more stable and it is therefore worth making an investment in the technology now.
In 2010, Coca-Cola launched a plastic soft drink bottle called the PlantBottle, which is made with 30% sugarcane ethanol. Although the bottle is recyclable rather than biodegradable, it was a step forward. And recently, Coca-Cola announced that they are working with company Virent towards their first 100% biobased bottle, with the ultimate goal of using 100% bioplastics in their packaging by 2020. While they are currently looking at sugarcane as the source of their plastics, they also expect to be able to use other natural resources like stems, fruit peels, barks – and of course sugar beets.
To find out more about the exciting and emerging world of biobased plastic research and design, be sure to check out Dutch Design Week Einhoven’s upcoming event called ‘Design Challenges with Biobased Plastics.’