Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Biodegradable Plastics
Name: Natalia
Status: student
Grade: 6-8
Location: N/A

What is the buzz about biodegradable plastics? I am learning about starch bioplastics. My plan is to try and add some type of biopolymer to make the starch plastic water resistant and strong. This is because starch is not waterproof or strong. If I have done my research correctly, starch is blended with other biopolymers due to its low cost. When it is blended with these other chemicals it ends up being more expensive. Price is the number one factor against bioplastics. So, what is really popular about this topic? What biopolymer do you suggest would complete the task that I am attempting?

The main interest in 'biodegradable' plastics is that they break down into simpler components sooner than traditional plastics. Usually, this means the chemistry of the polymers is such that they degrade into smaller molecules either chemically or by organisms. Biopolymers, however, are a different thing. The term biopolymer typically refers to polymers that come from biological sources. They are not necessarily bio-degradable. For instance you can make polyesters from soybean oil, and these polyesters are not biodegradable. The interest in biopolymers stems more from using renewable resources to make the plastics rather than petroleum. Conversely, biodegradable polymers can be made from petroleum. In other words, biopolymers are not necessarily biodegradable, and biodegradable polymers are not necessarily bio-based.

I am assuming that you are creating your "starch-plastic" by rinsing and acid-treating potato or other starch. You can then press the resultant starch into semi-hard shapes. There are several reasons why your homemade starch-plastic is not as strong or waterproof as you like. One reason is the nature of starch -- it absorbs water. Another reasons is that probably your starch has a rough surface. A rough surface means it has higher surface area, which means water can get into it more quickly. Last, the individual starch molecules have not been 'stretched', and therefore do not make as strong a matrix as if they had been stretched and entangled.

There are lots of things you can do. One option is to add a little vegetable oil to the dry starch -- the oil will repel water. Another is to heat the plastic (melt it) to get a smooth surface. The high temperatures are a safety risk and I would not do this unless you have proper safety equipment and equipment to melt it -- this is not a home-based experiment. If you want to add a bio-polymer, I might suggest PLA (polylactic acid) which is also made from starch. PLA is very popular these days. However, you would have to melt it to get it fully incorporated (it comes in pea-sized pellets commonly). PLA is water resistant, although it is not very strong. Adding other polymers starts to be a problem, because the way they need to be processed requires heat (to melt and mix them), and also a particular kind of mixing that stretches the molecules to make them strong. In industry, they use equipment called 'extruders', but these are not common in normal school science labs. Last, when you press the starch, make sure you use a very smooth surface. The smoother the surface, the longer it will take for water to infiltrate it (although the water will still get in quite readily). To increase the compressive strength, you could also add sand or even gravel to your polymer. The mixture of polymer and hard components will increase its compressive strength -- but it will increase its weight, and will not improve other kinds of strength like tensile (stretching) strength or toughness.

Hope this helps,
Burr Zimmerman

Ni Natalia,

Interest in biodegradable plastics is clearly driven simply because they can degrade over time in the environment. There is a lot more involved here, than trying to "add some type of biopolymer to make the starch plastic water resistant and strong". For one thing, you, as a pretty bright grade 6-8 student, unfortunately do not have the facilities to "blend" plastics. As they say, "it just ain't that simple!"

The simplest plastics that can be biodegradable, are made from starch as a starting point. But you must understand that this does not mean just stirring a bunch of starch into a vat of plastic resin! Instead, cornstarch is chemically modified into a new type of plastic resin, in the same way that ethylene gas is used as a starting point for polyethylene plastic bags (yet there is no ethylene gas in plastic bags!). This type of resin must NOT be totally waterproof, because if it were, it would not biodegrade. Typically warmth and moisture cause this type of plastic to swell and allow moisture to seep into it to begin the degradation process. Starch is not used only because it is cheap. It happens to be needed as a starting point to make this type of biodegradable plastic. Starch is in fact more costly than many traditional plastic "feedstocks". For example, ethylene gas (the starting point for ordinary polyethylene plastic) is way cheaper than starch, but of course, the resulting polyethylene is not biodegradable.

Another class of biodegradable plastics are not starch based, but are made from plant-based feedstock. An example is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biopolymer. But although this uses plant material as a feedstock, the manufacturing process still uses much more energy than the manufacturing process used in traditional plastics. So these plastics may be environmentally friendly once they are left to degrade, but the increased energy needed for their manufacturing process can result in much more fossil fuels needed (burned to make heat), than ordinary plastics that are actually made from oil-based chemicals.

You are indeed correct that price is one problem with bioplastics. This is a direct result of the increased complexity of their manufacture, the often higher cost of basic feedstock, and their increased requirement for energy in manufacturing.

Bob Wilson

You have raised a thorny bunch of problems!! First, you need to assess "the buzz" about biodegradable plastics. Second, cellulose is a high molecular weight of starch, which is a high molecular weight polymers of sugars. Third, cellulose is pretty stable. Trees and plants are composed largely of cellulose. I do not know of any non-biological process for decomposing cellulose that is energy efficient. Now there is a question of "blending" polymers. In general polymers of different types do not mix. It is like trying to mix water and oil. You have CORRECTLY identified the problem "PRICE / PERFORMANCE". How to blend polymers that have the desired properties at a reasonable cost. Adding a biopolymer to cellulose you recognize is blending one biopolymer to another bio polymer. In its "native state -- i.e. wood" cellulose is pretty strong and durable, in the short term. But in the long term it is "food" for microbes, so it "rots". This has led to the addition of some pretty powerful "preservatives". Finding an effective substitute or additive would be a technological breakthrough. But it is a case of "many have been tested, but none have been found." Your project is not simple or easy. A lot of failures can be found. Possibly you could organize the methods and materials that have been tried and failed, because I do not think that you will find a method/material that has not been tried unsuccessfully.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the Material Science Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory