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FLEXO Magazine : March 2008
38 FLEXO MARCH 2008 www.flexography.org The Truth About Biopolymers Myths Revealed... and Dispelled By Richard Eichfeld Biopolymers are typically made from new carbon sources--- i.e. plants, which are an annually renewable resource. The difference is that old carbon, or petrochemical resources, are based on crude oil, which takes hundreds of millions of years to form. New carbon resources are considered anything that can be formed in a relatively short period of time. New carbon sourc- es may be considered carbon neutral when used, based upon a comparison of how long it takes the resource to be formed, to how quickly it is re-introduced back to the atmosphere as carbon. They have to be in close proximity to each other to create a closed loop cycle to be carbon neutral. With petrochemical-based prod- ucts, you have 100 million-year-old carbon introduced back into the atmosphere in a matter of days, and that causes a problem. When printers/converters think of biopolymers, the first term that likely comes to mind is polylactic acid (PLA). Biopolymer film products are made from this resin that is culled from corn starch. There are numerous manufacturers of PLA film. The technol- ogy garnered international attention in the flexographic industry when Plastic Suppliers received an FTA Environmental Excellence Award in 2006 for its PLA product, trademarked EarthFirst®. SUSTAINABILITY Nothing is truly sustainable. Not yet, anyway. No one should be trying to claim that PLA products are 100 percent sustainable. They do offer benefits for those who are taking steps toward sus- tainability because it comes from an annually renewable resource. Sustainability is a road that we in the printing/converting indus- try are traveling, and the goal is carbon neutrality from cradle to cradle. However, there are tractors and freighting that require diesel fuel, and even electricity to make film from the resin. Biopolymers are a step in the right direction and offer an alterna- tive to how we best use our natural resources. IngeoTM PLA resin, produced by NatureWorks®, is used to extrude EarthFirst PLA, and is almost carbon neutral according to LCA (lifecycle analysis) data. One of the misconceptions is that some products from new carbon sources that are blended with petrochemical-based prod- ucts are still considered biopolymers, and that's not true. In addi- tion, there is development right now to make polyethylene from sugarcane. That would also be considered a biopolymer, derived from carbon-neutral sources. However, this type of product is un- able to meet ASTM D6400 composting standards. There has been talk that biopolymers require more energy to create than petroleum based films. These statements do not take into account the actual resin pellet. There is no petrochemical used in that particular part of the process when manufacturing PLA resin. PLA comes from starch. In the case of polypropylene, PVC, polyester, etc., experts sometimes neglect to mention and include natural resource con- sumption neces- sary for manu- facturing petro- chemical resin pellets. When you compare PLA to generally accepted petro- chemical prod- ucts, PLA, by far, requires the least amount of ener- gy in resin pellet production. TECHNOLOGIES & TECHNIQUES FLEXIBLE PACKAGING EarthFirst TDO tamper band replaces PVC. Photos courtesy Plastic Suppliers Inc PLA bottle with .002 EarthFirst TDO full body shrink sleeve, complete PLA beverage.