Bioplastics and Nanotechnology

Manufacturers add chemicals and additives to products and packaging on the market to improve performance capabilities and appearance. Bioplastic products are no different in this respect than conventional products. Because bioproducts are marketed as green and sustainable, however, this industry has a particular responsibility to ensure their products are indeed safe for the public and the environment. One trend in the bioplastic industry has been to improve bioplastic performance characteristics (such as barrier properties) by utilizing nanotechnology. We caution against the use of nanotechnology for several reasons that are discussed in the following.

What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology utilizes the recently enhanced ability of researchers to manipulate things at the nanoscale, also called the atomic or molecular scale. This usually means a scale between 1 and 100 nanometers (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). Working at the nanoscale enables the creation of products with unprecedented properties in terms of, for example, strength, thermal and electrical conductivity and mobility. Nanotechnology can be utilized to create more efficient and less obtrusive medicine such as cancer treatments that only target tumor cells and avoid healthy cells. Nanotechnology also has potential uses with more trivial applications such as the already existing stain-resistant tie that has a protective layer of nanomaterial. With all these possibilities and the increasing investments in research and development, nanotechnology is being called the next industrial revolution. Nanotechnology is not only a Western phenomenon but is also getting a lot of attention in countries like China. The exact number of products utilizing nanotechnology is unknown as they are currently not required to be labeled as such; however, to visit an extensive nanotechnology consumer products inventory, click here.

Nanotechnology and Bioplastics

One of the challenges in the development of bioplastics is that their mechanical properties, such as barrier properties, are not as good as those of petroplastics. One way companies are looking to solve this is to utilize nanotechnology. The increasing interest in nanotechnology and bioplastics is evident from the attention the topic is getting at conferences on bioplastics. At the 2007 Global Plastics Environmental Conference three of the twelve presentations comprising the bio-based and biodegradable materials track, and several of the student posters, discussed the potential of using nanotechnology to improve the properties of biodegradable plastics. Nanotechnology was also the topic of a number of presentations at the International Degradable Plastics Symposium held in Chicago 2006. As Andrew Myers of TDA Research stated in his presentation, "Nano is hot: lots of funding, lots of research, lots of patents."

An example of research and development within nanotechnology and biodegradable plastics is SustainPack, an EU-funded packaging research project. According to the SustainPack web site, the project aims to "establish fiber-based packaging as the dominant player in the packaging area within a decade. It will achieve this by applying nanotechnology solutions." They explain that nanotechnology will likely improve barrier properties and mechanical strength.

Nanotechnology is already being used in commercial bioplastics products. For example, Cereplast, the recipient of the 2007 Environmental Award for New Technology in Materials from the Society of Plastics Engineers, and the provider of cutlery for the Biodegradable Products Institute's Zero Waste Barbeque held at the US Composting Council's 2007 annual conference and exhibition, includes nanocomposites in their production of bioplastics. In addition to cutlery, Cereplast makes products such as drinking straws, plates and cups. Cereplast explains on their website that they use nanocomposites for surface optimization and further reinforcement of their products. Another bioplastics product that is made using nanotechnology is BioTRED, a Goodyear-Novamont tire partly made from Mater-Bi starches. The interesting thing about BioTRED is that instead of adding nanosized materials to the biomaterials comprising the product, the biomaterials are nanosized. According to Novamont, using nanotechnology increases some of the mechanical properties more than 100 fold.

Nanotechnology and Risk

The biggest problem with nanotechnology is that there is a lack of research into its potential risks. Furthermore, existing oversight systems are believed to be inappropriate at the nanoscale because of the drastic change in properties and behavior that materials experience when manipulated at the nanoscale. Particles smaller than 50nm stop following the laws of classical physics and start following the laws of quantum physics. An example of the inadequacies of the current oversight systems is the use of analogies to other materials with known risks as a basis for estimating the risks of new materials. However, one of the benefits of nanomaterials is their novel properties and behaviors. These have no analogy.

Nanotechnology covers a wide range of materials and techniques of which the risks and unknowns vary greatly. In fact, it has been argued that the number of new materials that can be created from nanotechnology may be as extensive as the number of existing known chemicals. Every nanomaterial should therefore be analyzed and treated separately. Due to the lack of comprehensive studies into nanotechnology and risks, results on risks are currently inconclusive, but fears include that some nanoparticles may be able to enter the body through inhalation, consumption or skin contact and further penetrate cells and tissues causing biochemical damage in humans or animals. Exposure could occur in the research lab, during production in the workplace, during use or after disposal. Disposal may be particularly problematic when the products are composted, as is the case with bioplastics, since the nanomaterials then become exposed to the environment during the process of degradation. Some nanoparticles may conglomerate and thus cease to be nanoparticles, but others may retain their size and react with the environment in harmful ways. Materials at the nanoscale have a large surface area compared to their mass making them less stable and more reactive.

Jim Guest, President of Consumer Reports, in his October 2006 monthly letter to subscribers states: "We seem to have missed a few steps: manufacturing standards, labeling regulations, safety guidelines... Before these products show up en masse in stores and doctors' offices, a worldwide effort is needed to understand what nanoparticles can do to our health and to the environment." Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment, comments to the Washington Post, "Every day, consumers are being asked to be a test market for some of those risks." Some argue that it is not uncommon for a new technology to take off without proper risk research until after an accident happens or risks become evident. Nevertheless, a wide array of stakeholders is calling for more research into risks, including those stakeholders supporting the current rapid growth of nanotechnology. They are worried that an accident, or even merely public fear of an accident, will impede the economic benefits of the current nanotechnology boom. As Kristen Kulinowski, of Rice University, says to the Washington Post, "No nanotech company... wants to be the next Monsanto."

The UK House of Lord's Report on Nanotechnologies in the Food Industry

In February 2009, the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry into the use of nanotechnologies in the food sector. Part of its scope was to investigate whether effective systems are in place to ensure that consumers are aware of and protected against any potential risks. The Committee released its 112-page report, Nanotechnologies and Food, January 2010. [Click here for report:]

The report acknowledged the limited amount of research looking at the toxicological impact of nanomaterials, particularly in areas relating to the risks posed by ingested nanomaterials. The committee noted that this research is needed in order to ensure that regulatory agencies can effectively assess the safety of products before they are allowed onto the market and further concluded that research into these areas was not being afforded a high enough priority by Government or its Research Councils, considering the timescale within which products containing nanomaterials may be developed.

The report’s summary notes, “It is equally important to ensure that the regulatory framework governing food is adequate to deal with the novel challenges posed by nanomaterials. While, in principle, existing legislation should ensure that all nanomaterials used in the food sector undergo a safety assessment before they are allowed on to the market, there are certain ‘grey areas’ where products containing nanomaterials may slip through the regulatory net. We make recommendations to fill these gaps; in particular, we recommend that a definition of nanomaterials be added to food legislation to ensure that all nanoscale materials that interact differently with the body as a result of their small size are assessed for risk before they are allowed on to the market.”

  • “Given the uncertainty about the potential risks of nanomaterials, it is essential that any nanomaterial used in a food product [except those naturally occurring] should be subject to a formal risk assessment process through the European Food Safety Authority. We recommend, therefore, that the Government should work within the European Union to promote the amendment of current legislation to ensure that all nanomaterials used in food products, additives or supplements fall within the scope of current legislation.”
  • “We endorse the case-by-case approach taken by the European Food Safety Authority in assessing the safety of products. It allows the responsible development of low-risk products where safety data are available and is, in effect, a selective moratorium on products where safety data are not available. It provides consumers with the greatest security and ensures that unless a product can be fully safety assessed, on its own merits, it will not be allowed on to the market.”
  • “We recommend therefore that the Food Standards Agency create and maintain an accessible list of publicly-available food and food packaging products containing nanomaterials that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority.”

Dealing with Risks and Nanotechnology

Bioproducts are marketed as green and sustainable, and therefore this industry, in particular, has a responsibility to ensure its products are indeed safe for the public and the environment. Following the precautionary principle nanotechnology should be avoided since there is not yet enough information to ensure that products utilizing nanotechnology are completely safe for human health and the environment throughout their lifecycle. Nevertheless, nanotechnology is a genie that can be hard to put back into the bottle and it is already being used extensively. All stakeholders need to collaborate to enable a comprehensive investigation into risks and ensure the responsible development of nanotechnology. US Congress is not, however, appropriating adequate funds into risk research and nanotechnology. Companies can therefore play a huge role in determining what are the risks involved with nanotechnology by carrying out independent investigations. Companies that do carry out such research should thus be acknowledged and if companies can provide documented evidence that the nanotechnology they use is safe throughout the product lifecycle the product should be supported.

Preferably extensive research into risks should be done before a product ends up on the market. This has not been the case with nanotechnology. An interesting new development in nanotechnology is what is called "green" nanotechnology. This comprises:

  1. Advancing the development of clean technologies that use nanotechnology,
  2. Minimizing potential environmental and human health risks associated with the manufacture and use of nanotechnology products, and
  3. Encouraging replacement of existing products with new nanoproducts that are more environmentally friendly throughout their life cycles.

Although these are laudable goals, those pushing for green nanotechnology are not pushing for the precautionary principle. They argue that by looking into risks before a disaster happens they are ahead of the curve. However, introducing the products without first assessing the risks may end up being disastrous.

Whether products that contain nanomaterials should be labeled as such is currently debated. If nanotechnology proves to be completely safe then labeling would not be needed, but since risks are unknown it should be up to the consumer to decide whether or not they want to take the risks exposure may involve. The Toronto-based ETC (erosion, technology, concentration) Group has, in reaction to the lack of labeling for products produced using nanotechnology, launched a design contest to create a label that can be put on products to indicate that they contain nanoparticles. People from around the world have sent in suggestions, several of which were rather morbid with symbols such as skulls included in the design. This contest gives an impression of the fear of nanotechnology among some in the general public. To see the signs and read more about the contest click here.

The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative's Sustainable Purchasing Guidelines recommends the following:

"Avoid nanomaterials: Use only nanomaterials that have been subjected to thorough testing and environmental health and safety impact assessment across their life cycle. Follow the Precautionary Principle, substituting safer alternatives in preference to nanomaterials that may have serious adverse effects. Utilize nanomaterials only in a manner that protects against human exposures or environmental releases. Label all uses of nanomaterials and include toxicity information on nanomaterials for worker protection on material safety data sheets."