Edible plastic and other miracles

Photo: istockphoto.com/David Turton
Some companies are re-inventing themselves with their new green innovations

Sweet plastic
In Brazil, many cars are not only fuelled by sugarcane, they may soon be made largely from sugarcane. That's because Braskem, Brazil's largest petrochemical company, has figured out how to make polyethylene -- a kind of plastic commonly used to make all kinds of car components, among countless other things --out of sugarcane ethanol. It's just one of the many new environmental innovations emerging from the labs of chemical and manufacturing companies around the world.

Change of colour
General Electric, for its part, has reinvented itself in recent years under the banner of "Ecomagination", the names its CEO has given to the company's new line of environmentally friendly products and services. Once an environmental pariah due to its association with nuclear weapons and PCBs, GE is now a champion of energy efficiency and low-toxicity products.

Industrial green
The most recent additions to their product line include some new plastics that sound like rejects from a Sci-fi movie: Valox iQ and Xenoy iQ. Nevertheless these plastics, made from 85 percent post consumer PET soda pop bottles, is reformulated to be strong enough to replace steel in automobiles. By reducing the vehicle weight they will dramatically improve the car's mileage. While these advancements may sound as exciting as watching low-VOC paint dry, they demonstrate that "industrial" no longer has to be synonymous with "toxic".

Some plastic with those veggies?
Leading the charge along with Braskem are relative newcomers like Australia-based Plantic and agro-giant Cargil's NatureWorks, both of which produce biodegradable "plastic." NatureWorks is a PLA plastic (polylactic acid -- basically fermented lactase) made entirely from corn. The two companies are finding plenty of applications for their new products, from packaging to shopping bags to water bottles to clothing. While their combined market share remains relatively small, companies such as these hold out hope that we will one day wean ourselves off our addiction to petroleum-based plastic.

And their products are actually compostable along with your carrot peelings and grass clippings. What's more, Plantic, which is a bioplastic grown in petri dishes, is actually edible! Apparently it doesn't taste great, but if you're still hungry after eating the food, you can eat the wrapper….

A few problems to iron out
Some of these environmental innovations do have their down sides, however. In the case of corn- and sugarcane-based plastics, the increased industrial use of both crops is contributing to deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, as well as a sharp rise in world food prices.

So while it is nice to know that some of the new products available to consumers are somewhat better for the environment than their predecessors were, there really is no substitute for good old conservation.

An organic hemp shopping bag beats a disposable corn-based bag any day, and even biodegradable plastic bottles don't hold a candle to a simple glass of tap water.