"Naturally produced polyesters" may sound like a phrase lifted from a marketing campaign, but feed sugar to certain types of bacteria and you've got yourself a plastic production line.
That's the case with polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) polyesters, the two main members of which are polyhydroxybutrate (PHB) and polyhydroxyvalerate (PHV). These biodegradable plastics closely resemble man-made polypropylene. While they're still less flexible than petroleum-based plastics, you'll find them in packaging, plastic films and injection-molded bottles.
Production costs have mostly put PHA in the shadow of cheaper, petroleum-based plastics, but a little creativeness in sourcing inexpensive raw materials may make it a top choice soon. Corn-steeped liquor, molasses and even activated sludge could all supply the sugar the bacteria need to produce the plastic.
PHAs biodegrade via composting; a PHB/PHV composite (92 parts PHB/8 parts PHV, by weight) will almost completely break down within 20 days of cultivation by anaerobic digested sludge, the workhorse of biological treatment plants [source: Nolan-ITU Pty Ltd].
PHAs already are used in a variety of products, including disposable package for foods, beverages and various consumer products. They're also being used in medical applications such as sutures, and to make the agricultural foil used to store hay bales [source: Creative Mechanisms].