Sustainable Polymers 101

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Contributed by Jennifer Henderson, Director of Outreach, Education, and Diversity, Laura Seifert, Managing Director , and Marc Hillmyer, Director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers, University of Minnesota CSP

Polymers are long chain molecules comprised of smaller, repeating molecules called “monomers”. While many people associate polymers with plastic, polymers actually make up a variety of materials. Naturally occurring polymers include DNA, cellulose, and natural rubber; common synthetic polymers include polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene and are used to create many of the plastic items we use daily.

Synthetic polymers are traditionally derived from petroleum or natural gas, and the very properties that make these materials so desirable are also what make them environmentally challenged. These are versatile materials that are durable and strong, but they do not degrade and can persist in the environment for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. A sustainable polymer is a material that addresses the needs of plastic consumers without damaging our environment, health, or economy. Feedstocks for these types of polymers are renewable, such as carbohydrates from plants like corn or sugarcane. The challenge of creating sustainable plastics is to create products from renewable feedstocks, that use less water and non-renewable energy, emit less greenhouse gases, and have a smaller carbon-footprint, all while remaining as economically viable as their non-sustainable counterparts. Replacing traditional plastics with those made from sustainable polymers would have enormous impact, as global production of traditional plastics has continued to grow by nearly 5% per year over the past 20 years, reaching 265 million tonnes produced in 2010.1

At the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP), researchers concentrate their efforts on creating renewable, functional, degradable, and non-toxic polymers. These polymers can be incorporated into tomorrow’s advanced plastics, foams, adhesives, elastomers, and coatings. As the overarching goal of the CSP is to establish chemical principles that enable the efficient and economical conversion of biomass into sustainable polymers, the principles of green chemistry are a critical component of this research. The CSP aims to use renewable feedstocks in precise, controlled reactions to produce materials that compete with traditional plastics in terms of cost and performance, but are less hazardous and that can degrade in the environment.

The research of the CSP, and other groups like it, are part of a growing interest in sustainable plastics. Growth of the bioplastics industry is expected to range from 19% to over 30% per year.1 The majority of the market consists of polylactic acid (PLA) and compounded starch products. As the availability of sustainable polymers in industry continues to evolve and grow, many performance deficiencies of early compostable bioplastics are managed through innovative co-polymer blends. Companies continue to invest in the bioplastic market, such as Coca-Cola partnering with Virent, a producer of bio-based paraxylene, to create 100% biobased soda bottles.2

The need for sustainable polymers that can compete with traditional plastics is growing. Innovative research is exploring how both novel and established polymers can be created using renewable feedstocks, including a drive to move from food-based starch and sugars to non-food alternative sources. Researchers at the CSP and other universities, as well as leading industry partners, are meeting the challenge of developing the sustainable materials of tomorrow.

1Jim Lunt & Associates. (2014). Marketplace Opportunities for Integration of Biobased and Conventional Plastics. Research Report by the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

2Coca-Cola Corporate. (2011). The Coca-Cola Company Announces Partnerships to Develop Commercial Solutions for Plastic Bottles Made Entirely From Plants. [Press release]. Retrieved from

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