Future is seen — wrapped in bioplastics

Though San Luis Obispo County will ban plastic bags in grocery stores starting in October, if it were up to an expert in the field of bioplastics, grocers would offer bags composed primarily of sources such as vegetable oils and fats, corn starch, cell walls of plants and algae.

Dr. Amar K. Mohanty gave the keynote address Tuesday at the 18th International Association of Packaging Research Institutes conference, which is being held this week on the Cal Poly campus.

“Biomaterials in products such as plastics, packaging and building supplies must be encouraged as a way to move the world into a green economy,” Mohanty said.

The Cal Poly Packaging Program, which celebrates its 25th year this year, is hosting the conference.

About 200 industry and academic leaders from around the world are attending the event. The conference includes about 60 presentations on topics such as frozen fish wrappers for microwave steaming and hybrid plant fibers for packaging.

Mohanty directs the Bioproducts Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.

His keynote address to kick off the conference encouraged the use of biomaterials, including bioplastics, in government policy and as a public focus to help reduce waste and “greenhouse gases” and to create “green jobs.”

Mohanty explained that plastics that are petroleum-based are commonly disposed of through landfills, recycling or incineration. They produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, blamed for global warming, each year.

But certain bioplastics are biodegradable and can be composted with food or green waste. Others have a blend of plant-based materials and petroleum, which can compose as little as 5 or 10 percent in many commonly used products.

Bioplastics can be used to make kitchen utensils, pens, shampoo bottles and garbage bags.

After his talk, Mohanty told The Tribune that he has noticed plastic bag bans becoming more common throughout the United States and Canada.

Without offering his opinion on those bans, he said a policy push toward bioplastics would serve the environment better.

He added that brown paper bags, that will be made available in local groceries at 10 cents per bag for those who don’t bring reusable bags in October, require water to help them decompose.

That’s a drain on water resources, and they also can take much longer than biomaterials to break down, he said.

Mohanty said bioplastics could bring solutions to economic, environmental and health care problems.

“The infrastructure would need to be in place,” Mohanty said. “That means that composting centers would need to be set up.”