Bioplastics have a long history, but they remain a suite of technologies that have had difficulty realizing their potential

In 1941, visitors to the Michigan State Fair had a glimpse of what could have been the future of transportation—Henry Ford’s soybean car. With the United States gradually being drawn into the Second World War, Ford worried that steel for body panels would soon be in short supply. He turned to the country’s highly productive agricultural sector for a substitute — plastics made from soybeans. HIs soybean car featured 14 bioplastic panels bolted to a tubular steel frame.

“In this case, it didn’t take long for the dream of the bioeconomy to fall by the wayside,” said Sean Ferguson, a lecturer of science, technology and society in UVA Engineering’s Department of Engineering and Society.

Despite its many advantages, Ford’s soybean sedan was a dead end. Within two months of Pearl Harbor, the last civilian car rolled off the assembly lines, and production didn’t resume until 1945. And thanks to wartime advances in synthetic chemistry, petroleum-based plastics soon outpaced bioplastics in cost and sophistication.

As Ferguson’s research reveals, bioplastics have a long history, but they remain a suite of technologies that have had difficulty realizing their potential. Ferguson uses the fate of bioplastics to shed light on the intersection of social forces and technology, an encounter that leads some technologies to succeed and equally promising ones to face difficulties finding acceptance.

Threading the Needle to Adoption

The case of the soybean car illustrates the fate of a new technology in the face of global events and entrenched competition, but, as Ferguson’s research shows, there are many other factors that have contributed to the struggle of bioplastics to find acceptance. One is a mismatch between claims for a technology and its capabilities. In the early 1980s, for instance, bioplastics seemed primed for a break out.

“Compostable bioplastics were advanced as a solution to the growing trash problem and pollution produced by petroleum-based plastics,” Ferguson said.

The problem was that manufacturers could not yet produce bioplastics that were 100 percent compostable. Instead, they blended petroleum-based plastic with degradable plant starch polymers. These mixed products failed to degrade in closed landfills, and when they did break down, they released toxic particles into the environment. There was a backlash. Many manufacturers — even those that had made large investments in bioplastics — left the industry.

Conflicting standards, Ferguson argues, have been another issue that has worked against acceptance of bioplastics. In the last decade, there has been great interest, especially among millennials, in sustainable products like “green” bioplastics. The problem is that there are multiple definitions of compostable, each with its own timeframe and temperature requirements. “A bioplastic produced under one standard may break down in the garden, while another requires the higher temperatures of an industrial composting facility to disintegrate,” Ferguson said. “This creates confusion among consumers.”

New technologies also bump up against entrenched interests.  Recyclers, for instance, are not eager to take on another type of plastic, particularly when there are so few outlets for the petroleum-based plastics they collect.  Large composters look at the chaos of new bioplastic varieties as too difficult to separate and have tended to side with caution by sending everything to the landfill.

Finally, Ferguson found that a contentious policy environment can also impede acceptance of technological change. Ferguson interned at New York State Governor’ Office and saw firsthand how the dynamic between policymakers and the public can undercut the emergence of new technologies and new approaches to sustainability. When the office suggested a ban on plastic bags at grocery stories, there was an outcry.

“I never appreciated the power of the messaging around consumer choice,” Ferguson said. “It was a revelation.”

Ferguson’s research is one reason that engineers are increasingly referring to the things they produce as socio-technical systems rather than infrastructure.

“When seen in the abstract, the advantages of a technology seem clear-cut,” he said. “In the real world, things are never that simple.”