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Switching from petro-plastics to microbial polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA): the biotechnological escape route of choice out of the plastic predicament?

Abstract

The benefit of biodegradable “green plastics” over established synthetic plastics from petro-chemistry, namely their complete degradation and safe disposal, makes them attractive for use in various fields, including agriculture, food packaging, and the biomedical and pharmaceutical sector. In this context, microbial polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) are auspicious biodegradable plastic-like polyesters that are considered to exert less environmental burden if compared to polymers derived from fossil resources.

The question of environmental and economic superiority of bio-plastics has inspired innumerable scientists during the last decades. As a matter of fact, bio-plastics like PHA have inherent economic drawbacks compared to plastics from fossil resources; they typically have higher raw material costs, and the processes are of lower productivity and are often still in the infancy of their technical development. This explains that it is no trivial task to get down the advantage of fossil-based competitors on the plastic market. Therefore, the market success of biopolymers like PHA requires R&D progress at all stages of the production chain in order to compensate for this disadvantage, especially as long as fossil resources are still available at an ecologically unjustifiable price as it does today.

Ecological performance is, although a logical argument for biopolymers in general, not sufficient to make industry and the society switch from established plastics to bio-alternatives. On the one hand, the review highlights that there’s indeed an urgent necessity to switch to such alternatives; on the other hand, it demonstrates the individual stages of the production chain, which need to be addressed to make PHA competitive in economic, environmental, ethical, and performance-related terms. In addition, it is demonstrated how new, smart PHA-based materials can be designed, which meet the customer’s expectations when applied, e.g., in the biomedical or food packaging sector.

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