Axel Barrett Bioplastics Chronicles

The History of Bioplastics

Here's a short history and summary of the bioplastics milestones, innovations and discoveries.

1.500 BCE – MesoAmerican cultures (Olmec, Maya, Aztecs) use natural latex and rubber to make balls, containers and make their clothes waterproof.

1862Alexander Parkes (UK) creates Parkesine, the first man-made plastic made from cellulose. Parkesine was a biobased plastic, a bioplastic.

1897 – Galalith is invented by German chemists. It’s a biodegradable plastic made from casein (milk). Commercial breakthrough was limited for several reasons. Galalith could not be moulded. Milk was scarce and the development of oil-based plastics were boosted during WWI. Galalith is still used today to make buttons.

1926Maurice Lemoigne (FR) developed polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) from bacterium Bacillus megaterium. This was the first bioplastics made from bacteria. The principle is easy: when humans eat sugar, they will put on fat. When bacteria absorb sugars, they will produce polymers.

1907Leo Baekeland (BE) invented Bakelite that was coined a ‘National Historic Chemical Landmark’ due to its importance. Bakelite was a synthetic plastic that was revolutionary for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties in electrical insulators, radio and telephone casings and other products such as kitchenware, jewelry, toys and firearms. Leo hit the jackpot with Bakelite.

1912Brandenberger (CH) invents and patents Cellophanea transparent sheet made from wood, cotton or hemp cellulose. Cellophane is a trade mark and a generic term. The registered trademark is currently property of Futamura Chemical UK.

1930sHenry Ford (US) used bioplastics made from soy beans for some car parts. Ford stopped using soy plastics after WWII because of the abundance of cheap oil supply.

1947Rilsan (polyamide 11 or nylon 11) was patented by Organico. Carmaker Citroen used it for its DS cars. The brand is currently owned by Arkema (FR).

1950-60s – W.R. Grace (US) evaluates if bioplastics (PHA and PHB) can be produced from microbes and bacteria on a commercial scale. They apply for several patents but loose interest because of cheap oil.

1973 – Oil and Energy crisis because of the embargo of Arab oil producing countries to show support for Palestine. Rising oil prices and dependence to oil in the 1970s became the driver for the development of bioplastics.

1975 – A team of Japanese scientists discover the principle of biodegradable plastics. They discovered a bacteria (Flavobacterium) that broke down nylon in pools containing waste water from a nylon factory.

1979Iranian Revolution and Iran Iraq War causes expensive oil prices, huge debts and deficits in Western democracies. This will lead to overproduction and oversupply of oil in the 1980s making it less urgent to find alternatives to oil-based plastics.

1983Imperial Chemical Industries (UK) and a local venture capital firm (Marlborough Teeside Management) create the first bioplastics company, Marlborough Biopolymers. Their bioplastics was made by bacteria and was called Biopol. The bacteria-produced Biopol could be processed into strips, filaments, chips, panels and powders.

1990 – Bioplastics company Novamont (IT) is established. Novamont is seen as the Bioplastics industry leader. It’s probably the only bioplastics company who managed to keep its head above the water, commercially and financially speaking.

1992Chris Somerville from Michigan State University reported in the journal Science that bioplastics (PHB) could be produced  from a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana.

1996Monsanto acquires the Biopol business from Zeneca and start using plants to produce bioplastics instead of microbes and bacteria.

1997 – Cargill and Dow chemicals set up the Cargill and Dow Chemicals joint venture with the intention to produce bioplastics from corn. The joint venture starts producing PLA in 2001. The company was rebranded NatureWorks in 2005 and is the leading PLA producer.

2001Metabolix Inc. purchased Monsanto’s Biopol assets.

2001 – University of Lincoln (UK) researcher, Nick Tucker, was the first to use elephant grass in the production of bioplastic articles.

2010Rémy Lucas (FR) establishes Algopack, the first bioplastics company that uses seaweed as biomass. Seaweed don’t need fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides or land. The seaweed bioplastics biodegrades within 12 weeks in soil and 5 hours in water. is established.

2018Arctic Biomaterials (FI) manage to reinforce PLA with biodegradable glass fibre. Their technology will enable PLA upgrade.

2014 – First Bio-based material for ski boots is launched under the brand Pebax (Arkema)

2018Project Effective was launched with the purpose to replace nylon with bio-nylon.

2018First prototype car made completely from bioplastics

2018First packaging made from a fruit

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