It was 1989 when the Fertec labs, the Montedison research centre, produced the first Mickey Mouse wristwatch for distribution with the famous comic. Not many people knew, however, that the watch had been made with materials derived from maize.

Technological advances in biopolymers, materials of vegetable origin whose physical properties are similar to those of plastic, are moving fast.

Their rapid spread today is a response to the growing need to replace raw materials of fossil origin (and with a high environmental impact) with biodegradable vegetable-sourced materials.

At the cutting edge are biobased materials: that is, materials developed from a vegetable source (maize and beetroot in particular), which changes its molecular structure when subjected to the action of fungi and bacteria in cultures at specific temperatures and humidity. This industrial process has already had a huge impact on packaging and disposable products.

Yet just a few years after the arrival of biopolymers, an important change is taking place. Up until recently, the raw vegetable materials required for biopolymer production were grown specifically for the purpose, whereas now they are taken from processing waste in other supply chains. Greater awareness and attention to wastage of resources that could potentially be used as food is apparent throughout the industry.

Some examples?

Yulex Pure, a biopolymer obtained from hevea and guayule plants, native South American species that need little water and minimal use of pesticides. This material is used chiefly for surfing wetsuits, and is greatly appreciated by many leading manufacturers, notably Patagonia.

Apinat is produced by the Api company from recyclable biodegradable agricultural waste. It can be worked in the same way as any plastic, is non-toxic and contains no heavy metals.

Bioleather is the ecological solution for people who can’t do without Schott: a biological leather obtained from cellulose modified with bacterial secretions.

Source: Tecnica calzaturiera, June 2017