Forget Bakelite. The future is bioplastic.

A recent survey conducted by the European Bioplastics Association found that the bioplastics market is growing by 20 percent a year — and that’s good news on the environmental front. Bioplastics swap crude for plant-based oils like soy bean and hemp, or corn and pea starch; they also replace traditional strength-enhancers like glass and carbon fiber with natural materials like wool and jute. So bioplastics cost less and are more ecologically sound to produce than their traditional, petroleum-based counterparts. The plastic family’s cleanest cousin also decreases carbon dioxide production by 0.8 to 3.2 metric tons and is biodegradable to boot. But there is one major bioplastics flaw: durability. 

Clearing this hurdle of staying power has been especially important to mobile technology industries like cell phone makers. “What other electronic device do you treat so shabbily?” says Keith Nowak, a spokesperson for Nokia, who is introducing the 3110 Evolve Candybar mobile this year in select European markets with a so-called bioshell made from more than 50 percent bioplastic and a breakthrough technology in its charging system for added efficiency. Japanese manufacturers have led the effort to improve durability, tackling the problem in stages. In 2005, Toray Industries, who recently built a $9 million bioplastic plant in South Korea, announced the creation of Ecodear, a much tougher material that combines longevity with added flexibility and transparency — two other components needed in the auto and personal electronics industries. Then in 2006, Mazda developed an 88-percent-corn-based bioplastic with three times the shock impact and 25 percent higher heat resistance than older versions. Last year, electronics firm NEC showcased a bioplastic with better heat conductivity than stainless steel. Now all this innovation is starting to reach consumers downstream: Fujitsu’s Ecodear-based FMV-BIBLO notebook PC is already on shelves. Mazda’s bioplastic-based Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid begins leasing later this year (the Premacy is the first offering from Mazda’s Sustainable Zoom-Zoom initiative). Toys are another industry that prizes durability — San Francisco’s Green Toys debuts a bioplastic-based line of products this year.

“We’re starting with that one device,” Nokia’s Nowak says about the bioplastic Candybar, “but the goal is to integrate this technology into many of our products.” Most of the more than one billion cell phones in the world are thrown out after eighteen months, so that’s no small thing.

Story by Steven Kotler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008