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Bioplastics Features and Limitations Essay

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Updated: May 27th, 2020


Bio plastics also have several serious shortfalls. For example, bio plastics production is often more energy intensive than petro plastic production due in large part to the need for agricultural inputs, in addition to the actual plastic processing. It only comes out ahead in the life cycle analysis because the petroleum feed stocks of petro plastics are included in the energy calculations.

Another example is that bio plastics cost more than petroleum-based plastics, although, the price difference between petro plastics and bio plastics can largely be attributed to the immaturity of the bio plastics industry. Lower prices for bio plastics are expected in the near future. It is debatable whether consumers would be willing to shoulder the extra cost as observed by Goshal & Barlette (1997). The discussion starts on looking at various aspects of plastics, levels of concentration and the impacts it has on the country.

Aspects of various Plastics


Kevlar is a well-known polymer fabric noted for its strength. It is used in body armor and high-end sports equipment. It is also used in tires, brakes, and composite materials. Kevlar’s strength to weight ratio is extremely high. DuPont invented it in 1965. It is formed out of aramid fibers and retains flexibility despite its strength. Kevlar is synthesized in an easy one step reaction.

Polyvinyl Chloride

Polyvinyl chloride or PVC as it is commonly known is one of the most widely used plastics in existence. Varying levels of plasticizers and other additives can make PVC soft and flexible, for things like toys and the vinyl seats in cars, or complex and rigid like vinyl siding and PVC water pipes. PVC is also commonly used as a rubber substitute. Philip & Edward (2002) note that PVC is found in hundreds of products from inflatable pools and medical storage containers to fabric coatings and shoes, but its number one use is in the construction industry.

The lightweight and low cost of PVC makes it the favored material for water piping in developing countries. To sum up, any discussion of plastics without mention of PVC would be incomplete due to PVC’s frequency of use. The synthesis of PVC is slightly more complicated than the average plastic synthesis. The monomer, vinyl chloride, is usually produced by one of three methods. Sethi Williams (2001) remarks that the first method involves reacting 1,2-dichloroethane with sodium hydroxide in an aqueous solution at high pressure (150 psig) and moderately high temperature (145°C).


Polystyrene is the thermoplastic that is used to make Styrofoam. Styrofoam is made by a proprietary extrusion method. What is commonly known as Styrofoam is, in fact, styrene foam produced by expanding polystyrene beads. Polystyrene can also be used to make solid products. Computer cases are commonly made out of polystyrene. Toys like model cars and planes are often made of polystyrene as stated by Micklethwait & Woolridge (2003). Appliances for the kitchen and hairdryers are also made of polystyrene. Polystyrene is also found in automobiles where it is used to make the knobs for radio and air conditioning.

Limitations of Plastics


Consuming less energy in manufacturing and emitting less carbon dioxide during production are both beneficial but greater savings can be achieved by recycling. Recycling is almost always more energy efficient and releases less carbon dioxide than making a new product. Donaldson & Dunfee (1999) observe that currently, bio-plastics are produced in such small quantities compared to the production of petro-plastics that the infrastructure for recycling has not yet developed. In principle, most bio-plastics should be easily recyclable because they are thermoplastics.

Major problem with efforts to recycle bio-plastics is that if they become mixed with petro-plastics they can contaminate the whole batch. For example, if an amount as small as 0.1% by mass of a bio-plastic were recycled with polyethylene terephthalate resin (PET) the entire batch of plastic would be rendered useless. As the production and use of bio-plastics increases, it is expected that dedicated recycling processes will be developed rendering bio-plastics as easy to recycle as petro-plastics.

Petroleum based commodity plastics are resistant to most microbes, water, and mechanical stress. All three of these properties render them resilient in the environment. When biodegradability is required, some petro-plastics are blended with additives susceptible to oxidation or hydrolysis. Photo-degradation and enzymatic degradation are two other options. Certain bacteria can break down plastics via enzymes even if they do not degrade. Some bacteria have been found that convert Styrofoam into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), a biodegradable plastic.

Bio-plastics bio-degrade more easily and at a greater rate than average petro-plastics. This is good for some applications and unsuitable for others. Even for bio-plastics, John & McGraw-Hill (2006) notes that composting often has to be done at real conditions like the high heat and oxygen levels or in the presence of certain microorganisms, for the desired degradation to take place.

Energy Consumption

Polyhydroxybutarates (PHB) require less energy, when the energy of production and feed stocks is combined than petroleum based plastics with similar characteristics. The total life cycle energy requirements for PHB are 44.7 MJ per Kg plastic produced. Polypropylene requires 85.9 MJ per Kg, HDPE uses 73.7 MJ per Kg, and LDPE uses 81.8 MJ per Kg produced. The energy requirements for PHB is about half that of the petro-polymers hence is a significant energy saving (Goshal & Bartlett, 1997).


Energy requirements for polymer production

Polylactic acid (PLA) currently consumes more energy in production than PHB. A kilogram of first generation PLA requires 54.1 MJ of energy input during its life cycle. Improvements to the process are expected with predicted values going as low as 7.4 MJ per Kg of PLA produced. 54.1 MJ is still significantly less than the energy consumption figures for most petro-plastics. The calculations include the oil feedstock in the energy requirement for the plastics.

Thermoplastic starch has the lowest energy requirements of the bio-plastic examples given. The life cycle requirement for TPS is 25.4 MJ per Kg plastic produced. Starch based foams vary in energy requirements from 32.4 to 36.5 MJ per Kg produced. Starch blends go up to 52.3 MJ per Kg produced. The starch blends are mostly petro-plastic. The energy savings of starch-based plastic over petro-plastics is considerable.

To put the total energy savings, combining energy contained in the feed stocks with energy used in the production process, of bio-plastics into perspective several comparisons have been made. If all UAE PP production was switched to PHB, PLA, or TPS the annual energy savings would be 363, 280, and 529 PJ respectively. Similar energy savings are obtained by switching HDPE or LDPE production to the bio-plastics PHB, PLA, and TPS. TPS has the potential for the most energy savings but also has the most limited potential use (Micklethwait & Wooldridge, 2003).


Unlike petroleum-based plastics, bio-plastics have not been implicated in any health problems. The monomers either do not leach into products or are relatively harmless when they do. Pure starch can be metabolized as previously discussed. Caution on bio-plastics is still warranted, as they are a developing industry whose health implications may only become apparent with further study. Although, the bio-plastics themselves have so far been deemed safe some steps in their production can have adverse health effects. When growing crops for bio-plastics it is common to use pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Pesticides can leach into drinking water. Known health risks of certain pesticides include birth defects, cancer, and nerve damage. Inorganic fertilizers often contain toxic heavy metals like cadmium as shown by Philips & Edward (2002). Fertilizers have also been linked to harmful algae blooms including red tide. These problems can be avoided if organic farming techniques are used but that slightly limits production.

The UAE Plastic Sector

In the UAE, the market for plastic products is found to be the largest in Dubai.

There has been a continued increase in the petrochemical industry in the UAE over the years, representing about a quarter of the total manufacturing investments in the UAE, in 2005. The plastic industry, as downstream activity in the oil industry, has a sizeable possibility for industrialization in the country as whole and particularly in Dubai. There could be an increased development of small and medium sized plants in the plastic industry due to hastened development of a domestic petrochemical industry. According to the Dubai Plastic Industries Capabilities report of the year 2009, the UAE was ranked second after Saudi Arabia, at the GCC county level, in the plastic industry. The growth of the plastic industry will soon lead to the reduced dependence on imports.

Dubai has about 90 industrial establishments running. The main activities include: “bottles and containers, pipes and fittings, bags, doors and windows, caps and lids, foils and utensils” (Sethi & Williams, 2001). The annual production of plastic production in Dubai alone earns over 1 billion AED, with more than 70% being from the exports. Industries influenced by the plastic industry in the UAE include cosmetics, household, construction, irrigation, pharmaceuticals and the food industry.

Most of the plastic produced in the UAE is exported to Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Ghana and South Africa. There is a little demand for plastic containers in Europe, though the demand for flexi packaging is adequate in Germany and Italy. Another factor limiting sale of plastics to Europe is the high cost of shipping.

According to the Dubai Plastic Industries Capabilities report, the total number of plastic industries in UAE in 2007 was approximately 505 units with an investment of about 732 Million US$ as per GOIC Database. The report further states that there are 153 units in plastic Bags & Packaging, 154 in Pipes and Hoses, 68 in Artificial Sponge and other Plastics and 130 in Other Plastic Products including Glass Fiber. Dubai Plastic industry integrates with UAE industry and benefits from many inter-linkages, while some of the industries in other Emirates use Dubai as an export point.

The growth of the trade in the plastic sector depicts the highly diversified base capable of growing as diversified needs grow. A growth of the integrated trade (exports, imports and re-exports) in quantity is a sign of potentially growing sector with a promising future, while the growth in value was also high, some of the growth may be due to inflation. In absolute terms the value of exports as in 2007 was nearly 1 Billion AED while the value of re-exports was around 1.3 Billion AED. Imports in 2007 valued 6.1, it is also noticed that imports grew sharply between 2006 and 2007 revealing growing manufacturing opportunities


The mainstream media has been devoting more and more attention to bio plastics as demonstrated by the newspaper and magazine articles cited in this paper. These articles paint an overoptimistic picture of the use of biomaterials in plastics. Bio plastics have many advantages over petro plastics but, they have yet to live up to the hype. When all factors are taken into account replacing a significant portion of plastics with bio plastics, is not a viable option at this time.

Several attributes make a switch to bio plastics attractive. Bio plastics production consumes fewer fossil fuel resources than petroleum based plastics because no fossil fuel feed stocks are used. They emit less carbon dioxide than petro-plastics over their life cycle. Bio plastics consume less energy to produce than petroleum based plastics. They have fewer health concerns associated with them because of their ability to compose (Sethi & Williams, 2001).

The most serious problem of bio plastics production is the impact on the food supply. Since bio plastics are commonly derived from food crops, shortages and price increases could result from scaled up production. Finally, recycling poses another problem for a switch to bio plastics. Widespread recycling operations do not exist yet for bio plastics. Mixing bio plastics with other plastics when recycling can result in unusable products. This is a concern because recycling is the most energetically and environmentally favorable option for making plastic based products. The disadvantages of bio plastics take much of their appeal. One thing above all others inhibits a switch to bio plastics. Despite all the advantages and disadvantages the limiting factor that makes a radical shift to bio plastics.


Donaldson, R., & Dunfee, J. (1999). Ties That Bind: A Social Contracts Approach to Business Ethics. Boston: Harvard Business Press. Web.

Goshal, S., & Bartlett, A. (1997). The Individualized Corporation: A Fundamentally new approach to management. UK: Harper Paperbacks. Web.

John E. McGraw-Hill. (2006). Business Ethics. Annual Editions, 35(6), 102-109. Web.

Micklethwait, J., & Wooldridge, A., (2003). The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. US: Modern Library. Web.

R. Philips & R. Edward F. (2002). Stakeholder Theory and Organizational Ethics. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Web.

Sethi, S., & Williams, F. (2001). Economic Imperatives and Ethical Values in Global Business. US: Springer. Web.

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