Biodegradable materials — Present situation and future perspectives



Biodegradable polymers constitute a loosely defined family of polymers that are designed to degrade through the action of living organisms. They offer a possible alternative to traditional nonbiodegradable polymers if recycling is impractical or not economical. The main driving force behind this technology is the solid waste problem, particularly with regard to the decreasing availability of landfills, the litter problem and the pollution of marine environment by non-biodegradable plastics. Technologies like composting used for the disposal of food and yard waste are the most suitable for the disposal of biodegradable materials.

European Standardisation Committee (CEN), Organic Reclamation and Composting Association (ORCA) and German Institute for Standardisation (DIN) have already defined, at a draft level, the basic requirements for a product to be declared compostable. They are based on: complete biodegradability of the product in a time period compatible with composting, measured through respirometric tests (ASTM D5338-9, ISO/CD14855, etc); disintegration of the material during the fermentation phase; no negative effects on compost quality; checking of laboratory-scale results on pilot/full-scale composting plants. These requirements set forth a common base for a universal marking system to readily identify products to be composted.

Thermoplastic starch-based polymers and aliphatic polyesters are the two classes of biodegradable materials with the greatest near-term potential. This paper reviews a great variety of properties, structures and biodegradation behaviour of thermoplastic starch in combination with poly(vinyl alcohol) or some aliphatic polyesters like poly(hydroxybutyrate-co-hydroxyvalerate), poly(lactic acid), poly(ϵ-caprolactone) and poly(butanediyl succinate).