Italian company makes plastic from sugar beet waste

A by-product of sugar beet production could prove a boon to the environment while reducing the world’s dependence on oil-based plastics.

A small Italian company represents one of the newest advances in bio-plastics.

An enormous factory for Co.Pro.B, Italy’s largest sugar producer, sits on the outskirts of the small northern town Minerbio. But it’s not the sugar that Bio-on, a small company with its offices near the factory, is interested in – it’s the sugar beet molasses that leaves the plant as trash.

Scientists at Bio-on have spent the last five years developing a way of turning the molasses into plastics.

The company mixes the sugar beet molasses with bacteria that feed on the sugar in a fermentation process that creates lactic acid, filtrates and polymers that can be used in the production of a biodegradable plastic called PHA.

Biodegradable plastics

“We can make a lot of things because it’s possible to obtain several plastic formulations,” Bio-on’s head biologist Simone Begotti told Deutsche Welle. “We can replace polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene.”

The company has developed biopolymers that can be used for both rigid and relaxed plastics and Begotti estimates that PHA could replace some 80 percent of the plastic in his lab.

“We’re making plastics that can be destroyed in water when they have finished their life for use,” Begotti said. “This can eliminate the island of objects that we see in our oceans and seas.”

According to a study for the European Bioplastics Organization, which represents 75 bioplastics companies, the global market for bioplastics will more than double between 2011 and 2015, with capacity predicted to pass the million ton mark this year, up from 700,000 tons in 2010.

Still a small market

“Our study shows that biobased commodity plastics will make up the majority of production capacity in 2015,” the study’s author Hans-Josef Endres of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Hanover said in a statement. “Biodegradable materials will, however, also grow substantially and will reach about 700,000 tons by then.”

Despite the growth, the market for bioplastics remains small compared to that of oil-based plastics. The Association of the Plastics Producing Industries estimated total plastic consumption to be at 270 million tons in 2010. The chairman of the board of European Bioplastics, Harald Käb, said he believed bioplastics could be substituted for between five and ten percent of the total EU plastics market.

The researchers at Bio-on aren’t the only ones working to create a biodegradable plastic. The chemical companies BASF, Braskem and Dow also have bioplastic products and are increasing their bioplastic manufacturing capabilities.

Keeping food on plates

Traditional plastics are made from petroleum and in addition to being a non-renewable resource are also responsible for land and sea pollution. With rising oil prices many companies have started using starchy carbon sources like corn and potatoes for their alternatives.

But Bio-on’s co-founder Marco Astorri said his company’s sugar beet bioplastic is unique in that it uses waste – rather than the viable food crops that often go into biofuels and bioplastics made from grains or potatoes.

“We only use waste material because it’s crazy to use food material and convert it into plastic,” Astorri told Deutsche Welle, adding that the process also avoids using genetically modified plants or chemical solvents. “We only use water and mechanical machines to extract the biopolymers.”

Beppe Croce, the head of the non-food agriculture section of Legambiente, Italy’s biggest environmental organization, says it is important that the world learns to make the most of agriculture and its waste.  

“Bioplastics are one part of a great challenge in the world, and especially Europe, to produce bio-based products instead of petrochemical products,” Croce told Deutsche Welle.

“We have to produce food, feed, energy and chemicals from agriculture,” he said. “We must do things very well and this depends how we utilize agriculture and natural resources.”


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