Plastic's Second Act

BASF's biodegradable plastic

BASF's biodegradable plastic, Ecoflex. Courtesy BASF.

Successfully introducing a “green” product includes challenges beyond ensuring its environmental advantage. The Gore Case Study “Co-Innovation of Materials, Standards, and Markets: BASF’s Development of Ecoflex” explores the development and marketing of a material and offers insights into the green-product innovation process.

From their creation in the mid-19th century synthetic polymers—plastics—were designed to resist nature’s ravages. In today’s world, with landfills quickly reaching capacity and plastic bags littering many locations, the robustness of some plastics exacts a high environmental toll. Against this backdrop work began in the early 1990s to create both biodegradable polymers and recycling systems. By the mid-1990s Germany was testing an integrated approach, including curbside pickup of organic waste, large-scale composting of materials, and transfer of compost to farmers and gardeners.

BASF, a German firm, wanted to enter the emerging market for compostable polymers. Anticipating a modest initial market, in the early 1990s BASF invented new materials that built on existing feedstocks and would fit with BASF’s manufacturing equipment. BASF’s project team included company scientists with connections to academics working on biodegradable materials and product marketing experts who came up with the concept for a biodegradable trash bag suitable for curbside pickup. While managers developed a marketing plan for the emerging product, scientists synthesized and screened new biodegradable polymers.

One material that received particular interest at BASF was a novel butanediol copolyester—the product that would become Ecoflex. Following extensive experimentation BASF modified the crystalline structure of polybutylene terephthalate by incorporating an aliphatic monomer in such a way that the polymer remained stable but was now chemically attractive to micro organisms, making it biodegradable. By 1992 the promising—though still unnamed—compound had undergone laboratory testing and initial compost trials both at the firm and in actual large-scale compost systems. BASF also carried out a variety of other toxicological studies and environmental tests on Ecoflex and its degradation compounds. In each case, test results showed no acute toxicity or accumulation of toxins. This was a concern to the company because of increasingly stringent regulations in Europe that producers track materials through the environment as well as worries that compost made with the breakdown components of synthetic plastics might be dangerous to use for growing foodstuffs.