Toray's Ecodea — Plastic from the Paddock?

corncob.jpgToray is a Japanese company that has its fingers in many pies. One is chemicals and fabrics. It's in this realm that they have developed 'Ecodea', their version of a Polylactic Acid (PLA) polymer, or plastic. Derived mostly from the fermentation of corn starch, it can be processed like most synthetic (petroleum based) products. The essential differences being that it comes from a renewable source and can be composted after completing its useful life. Although this latter benefit now seems less definite. On an earlier webpage Toray claimed Ecodea would decompose "into water and CO2 in about a month when composted, or in a few years when simply buried in the earth." Strangely that page is no longer seems available, but they now suggest Ecodea is 'carbon neutral', emitting the same amount of carbon dioxide "when incinerated or dumped", as it absorbs when growing. This apparent change of stance on compostability reflects developments with that other strong market player of PLA — Natureworks by Cargill. For example, the Bloomingfoods Deli Co-op having moved to Natureworks for their packaging, laterwrote to co-op members "We now realize that PLA only biodegrades at higher temperatures than those of a typical compost, requiring incineration or shipment to a special facility. So keep those containers out of the home compost; they aren't likely to decompose there." They go on to point out: "The biggest question concerns the source of the corn. It seems likely that the development of new plant-based technologies (for fabrics, plastics, paints, and other products) will encourage more monoculture, not less, as well as the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)."

We've covered the potential benefits and pitfalls of such developments in the past. Look for posts on pens, computers, printers, music players, clothing, and packaging. As you can see the promise of renewable bioplastics, particularly from corn, seems tantalising close, but is held back by some major hiccups. We trust these can resolved soon, as Peak Oil become a reality. ::Toray Ecodea

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