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Planet vs. Plastics? Choose Planet with Palm-Based Bioplastics

April 22, 2024

Earth Day is celebrated on 22 April every year since 1970 and serves as a reminder of our collective responsibility to safeguard the planet and forge a sustainable future. With the theme “Planet vs. Plastics”, the 2024 campaign aims to increase public awareness on the harmful effects of plastic pollution, with the goal of reducing plastic production by 60% by 2040 and eliminating single-use plastics by 2030.

In light of this theme, it’s time to explore innovative and more sustainable alternatives to the commonly used petroleum-based plastics.

One such solution is palm-based bioplastics. Let’s delve into the realm of palm-based bioplastics, exploring their transformative potential and the pivotal role they play in our journey towards a greener, more sustainable world.

What is palm-based bioplastics?

Bioplastics are a type of plastic derived from biological substances rather than petroleum. They are produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, and recycled food waste.

Palm oil derivatives can therefore be used as a material for bioplastics. Derived from the by-products and biomass of palm oil production, these bioplastics utilise resources that would otherwise be considered waste. This not only reduces the environmental footprint of these materials, but also adds value to the palm oil industry.

Some examples of bioplastic that can be derived from palm derivatives include:

  1. Polylactic acid (PLA), one of the most widely used bioplastics, is typically made of corn starch. Palm derivatives contribute to the production of PLA through various processes such as production of lactic acid (which is then converted into PLA) from empty fruit bunches (EFB), or as a plasticiser or filler in PLA.
  2. Polysaccharide-based bioplastic derived from polysaccharides, which are long chains of sugar molecules. Examples include cellulose, hemicellulose from EFB,
  3. Lignin, a type of biopolymer that can be extracted from EFB
  4. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), a group of biopolymers, are synthesised using EFB, palm oil mill effluent (POME), oil palm frond (OPF) and sludge palm oil (SPO) as substrate through the process of microbial fermentation.

These are just few examples of the types of palm-based bioplastics that can be made available. However, most of these examples are just at the research level and are yet to be commercialised on a large scale. Each type has its unique properties, advantages, and limitations, making them suitable for different applications and industries.

In Malaysia, a local company, Verdastro has successfully commercialised eco straws made from oil palm trunks (OPT). Unlike conventional eco straws made of paper or starch, these OPT eco straws are more durable and would not turn soggy upon prolonged contact with liquid.

Advantages of Palm-Based Bioplastics

Palm-based bioplastics offer several advantages over conventional plastics:

  1. Sustainability: They are derived from renewable resources, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
  2. Value-adding: They utilise biomass from the palm oil industry, therefore reducing industry waste and supporting circular economy.
  3. Biodegradability: Palm-based bioplastics are designed to be biodegradable, meaning they can break down naturally.
  4. Reduced Carbon Footprint: The production of palm-based bioplastics often results in a smaller carbon footprint as compared to conventional plastics.

Challenges in Implementation

Despite the potential of palm-based bioplastics, scaling up their production presents several challenges. These include technical challenges related to processing, limited feedstock availability, high production costs and talent shortage.

The Way Forward

As we commemorate Earth Day 2024, let’s remember that while bioplastics can be part of the solution, the problem of plastic pollution is more complex and is still far from being completely solved. It is crucial that we continue to explore and invest in sustainable alternatives such as palm-based bioplastics, while also working towards reducing our overall consumption and waste generation.