Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
VTT Developing Eco-Friendly Alternative for Polystyrene

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has announced it is developing an affordable and environmentally friendly alternative for polystyrene from PLA bioplastic, which is derived from organic sources.

Although expanded polystyrene (EPS) is currently used all over the world as a light packaging and insulation material, it poses a significant waste problem. The annual production volume of EPS is 5 to 6 million tons per year, and the non-biodegradable material typically ends up on waste tips or is disposed of by burning, which results in toxic compounds.

PLA (polylactide) is a bioplastic made from renewable materials with the help of lactic acid. VTT is investigating methods of foaming bioplastics to make beads that are further refined into products such as insulation sheets, using methods typical of EPS manufacturing processes.

The expansion of the bioplastic by foaming is carried out with consideration for the environment, using carbon dioxide. The density and heat insulation properties of the new biomaterial are similar to those of polystyrene. VTT plans to take its development work closer to industrial processing and to proceed from laboratory work to factory testing.

PLA products similar to polystyrene already exist, but are prohibitively expensive. Working with companies operating in the field, VTT will be looking for new and more efficient production methods to enable the manufacturing of affordable products.

In September, U.K. waste-management company Network Waste announced it is working with the Adapt Low Carbon Group at the University of East Anglia on a groundbreaking approach to waste management that could lead to paper waste being turned into bioplastic. The Norfolk-based company is in partnership with the University’s Adapt Low Carbon Group on a project involving paper crumb—the waste from paper milling—in cooperation with a Network Waste customer that produces up to 7,000 tons of damp paper crumb waste per year at its mill.

Earlier this year, a research project led by Biome Bioplastics, one of the U.K.’s leading developers of natural plastics, demonstrated the feasibility of extracting organic chemicals from lignin—a complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants and trees—for the manufacture of bioplastics.

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