Mind & Matter


Biodegradable Plastic Bags

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The Xylobag life cycle. Image: cycleWood Solutions.


“Paper or Plastic?” This frequently-heard question often confuses shoppers, because it might as well be “bad or worse?” when it comes to the negative environmental influences brought about by the two common types of disposable shopping bags. A variety of commercial stores and municipalities have sought ways to discourage the use of single-use bags. Meanwhile, researchers have been investigating the possibilities of making better throwaway containers.

A team of University of Arkansas students recently started a company to manufacture biodegradable plastic bags, utilizing a lignin-based bioplastic technology developed by University of Minnesota scientist Simo Sarkanen and licensed through the U of M Office for Technology Commercialization. Nhiem Cao, the president and CEO of the new company—called cycleWood Solutions—estimates that one million plastic bags are used every minute worldwide. With a 150 day-lifespan, the new biodegradable “xylobags” won’t sit in landfills or pollute the earths oceans like traditional plastic bags.

As positive as they seem, cycleWood’s bags will still require material and energy resources for their manufacture—and they could still add to the global plastic litter problem (albeit temporarily). So, consumers should hold onto their reusable bags, but use the xylobag alternative if they forget to bring their bags to the store.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.