PET bottles and a potential, sustainable replacement

Wood mimics packaging polymer.

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a ubiquitous packaging material.  Water bottles, soft drink bottles, clear clamshell packages of pastries, those irritatingly impenetrable electronics packages, they’re all made of PET.  It’s beautifully clear and colorless, durable, and generally an ideal material for making disposable food and retail goods packaging.  One of the big problems with PET, of course, is the disposable part.

The EPA reports that 1.66 million tons of PET are discarded every year.  That’s 12.3 pounds of empty soda bottles, or 107 empty 2L bottles, per person per year.  So, next time you’re in the grocery store, imagine clearing out a significant chunk of their shelf 2L soft drink inventory and tossing it straight into a dumpster.  That’s an awful lot of non-compostable, non-biodegradable trash.

The other problem with PET is that, like most plastics, it is a petroleum derivative.  Between the oil needed to make the raw materials, and the oil needed to power the factories and transport materials and products, you can figure that each PET beverage bottle consumes roughly 1/3 its volume in crude oil, so for our 2L soda bottles, that’s about 667 mL (0.176 gal) per bottle.  That’s 17 gallons of oil per person per year, which is nearly half a barrel of oil (0.405 barrel, to be precise).

I don’t know about you, but that’s more oil than I want to fritter away in the form of empty bottles every year.

Fortunately, we may not have to.  A research group in the UK has taken a waste product from paper manufacture, vanillin, and combined it with wood-alcohol-derived acetic anyhydride to make acetyldihydroferulic acid.  Polymerizing this acid yields PHFA, a sustainable polymer that mimics the structure and thermal properties of PET.  If the physical properties and processability also compare favorably with PET, the potential for using PHFA as a PET replacement is huge.

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