Published on : October 22, 2010

Biopolymer Development: Plastics Derived from Plant Sources Offer New Alternatives in Interior Protection Products

Biopolymer Development: Plastics Derived from Plant Sources Offer New Alternatives in Interior Protection Products

For decades, the use of rigid vinyl has been one of the primary material choices for healthcare facilities looking to protect and maintain the walls, corners, and doors of their facilities. However, with the advent of the USGBC’s LEED® program and greater environmental awareness, architects and facility owners increasingly sought alternatives to traditional polymers.

And therein lays the rub. Rigid vinyl offers tremendous impact resistance and can be readily molded into an endless number of shapes and forms to fit any protection requirement, from corner guards to hand rails to kickplates for doors. In addition, vinyl’s often lower price point continues to be a primary factor in that material’s selection.

One alternative: PC/ABS

As designers and owners shied away from PVC, manufacturers sought alternatives within the existing plastics spectrum, and many turned to PC/ABS. This polymer has tremendous impact resistance and is used in everything from car bumpers to motorcycle helmets. It was a logical alternative for interior protection products.

However, PC/ABS carries a chemical “burden,” since one of the polycarbonate components, bisphenol-A (BPA), may be linked to health effects, due to its use in food and beverage containers.

For manufacturers, offering PC/ABS comes with an economic burden as well. Base resin prices can be as much as double that of PVC. The difficulty with alternatives is often that supplies and costs of production for fossil-fuel derived plastics, like PC/ABS, often translate to higher prices and longer lead times for finished goods.

This acts as a disincentive in the marketplace, leading many contractors, with the owner’s and architect’s consent, to revert to rigid vinyl to meet construction budget and schedule constraints.

A better alternative: PETG

Some pioneering architectural products companies continued to push for greater breadth in alternative polymers. They quickly turned to PETG, a polyester-based resin that showed great promise, and is considered one of the more eco-friendly plastics. PETG is a co-polymer of PET, the main plastic used in production of recyclable water and beverage bottles.

PETG shows great promise for interior protection products since it is easily thermoformed. On the downside, this polymer, while extremely tough, can exhibit brittleness in its base form, which can lead to installation issues in the field. Installers may have to use greater care in cutting PETG to fit, or risk shattering.

One other eco note on PETG: There are currently only two manufactures of PETG resin in the world, U.S.-based Eastman Chemical, and Korean-based SK Chemical. When choosing a PETG supplier, manufacturers have to be keenly aware of the environmental burden of shipping base PETG from overseas, and the potential negative impact on LEED® transportation credits.

The future is now: Biopolymers

As the name implies, biopolymers (or organic polymers) are a form of plastic derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch, wheat gluten, pea starch, beet and cane sugars, or microscopic organisms, rather than fossil-fuel plastics derived from petroleum, called petroplastics.

Through the natural process of photosynthesis, plants produce and store carbon in starches. Much of the biopolymer used for industrial production comes from “harvesting” the carbon in the starches and breaking them down into natural sugars. Through natural fermentation (similar to making wine or beer) and then distillation and purification, the plant starch becomes a ready-to-use plastic.

Since plants, like corn, are considered a renewable source, such biopolymer is a greener alternative to other plastics, and reduces our reliance on fossil fuels.

Launched in 2003, NatureWorks LLC, an independent company wholly owned by Cargill, has made tremendous strides in the development and mass production of bioplastic derived from corn. It is the first company to offer a family of commercially available low-carbon footprint polymers derived from 100 percent annually renewable resources, with cost and performance that compete with oil-based plastics and fibers.

Bringing it all together: PETG + Biopolymer + Recycled content

As mentioned earlier, PETG is extremely tough, but brittle. The challenge in developing interior protection products from this polymer is reducing its brittleness and increasing the ease of thermoforming to mirror the versatility of vinyl with its endless shapes, colors, and uses.

As a rapidly renewable product, biopolymers contribute to reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. In construction applications, biopolymer can be a factor in LEED credit for rapidly renewable resources. Since this polymer can be flexible, yet rigid, thus increasing impact resistance, it was a likely candidate for blending with PETG to reduce its brittleness, making it a good fit for interior protection applications.

In addition, manufacturers know that recycled content needs to be one of the other primary considerations in new-materials development in order to divert waste from the landfill, and contribute to LEED credit for materials and resources.

Launched in early 2010, products made from a new patent-pending BioPolyPETG+ formula show great promise by combining all three of these materials in a line of interior protection products. The newly reformulated PETG does not contain any persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs), and is BPA free. The new material can be formed into rigid wall cladding, handrails, wall guards, corner guards, and kickplates.

On the plus side for indoor air quality, BioPolyPETG+ has received GREENGUARD® certification for Indoor Air Quality as well as the Children and Schools seal, which exceeds California Section 01350. This material also holds an NFPA Class A fire rating, and is offered at price parity with PVC.

The future is a lot brighter now that BioPolyPETG+ is available. The new material demonstrates a great leap forward in not only biopolymer development, but also its application in protecting the doors and walls within healthcare environments.

About InPro

 

Based in Muskego, Wisconsin, InPro is the nation’s premier manufacturer of building products, offering the most choices and best service in door and wall protection, decorative surfaces, expansion joint systems, cubicle track & privacy curtains and signage & way-finding. InPro products are used in the healthcare, senior living, hospitality, education, government, marine, and retail sectors. Since 2001, InPro has been the pioneer in providing non-PVC alternatives in interior protection products. The company is the first in its industry to successfully bring to market a biopolymer for door and all protection products. For more information on InPro Corporation, visit www.inprocorp.com, or call 800-222-5556.