248: Mater-Bi bioplastic


Normally, plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.


Aliphatic-aromatic biodegradable polyester

One of the European pioneers of bio-plastic is Catia Bastioli, a chemist from Novara, in the Piedmont region in northwest Italy.

In the late 1980s, Bastioli and a team at the Guido Donegani Institute, Ferruzzi-Montedison’s Corporate Research Center, started up an ambitious project to develop chemicals with low environmental impact using raw materials of agricultural origin, so integrating chemistry, the environment and agriculture.

Bastioli and a team set up Fertec research center where they Tomorrow’sed an enzymatic bacteria that makes goat cheese, cellulose to make alcohol, and a fabulous anti-wrinkle material. They then investigated the potential of corn starch, wheat and potatoes. Novamont (Novara-Montedison) was created to commercialise their bio-plastic.

One of Fertec’s earliest achievements was the creation of a biodegradable watch for Walt Disney. With Fertec incorporated with Novamont in 1991, production of the aliphatic-aromatic biodegradable polyester they tradenamed Mater-Bi (Materiale-Biotech) began at a new plant in Terni. Bastioli worked as technical director, general manager and managing director at Novamont became the force behind the transformation and rise of the company.

Before long it was found that Mater-Bi presented properties and viscosity values that made it suitable, after adjusting its molecular weight, for use in numerous practical applications such as films, injection molded products, extrusion coatings, fibers, foams, thermoformed products, extruded profiles and sheets, extrusion blow molding, injection blow molding, rotomolding, and stretch blow molding.

An initial production of 4,000 tons (3630 tonnes) per year, had doubled by 1997 and in 2001 had reached 16,000 tons (14,500 tonnes) per year. Products made in Mater-Bi bags, cutlery, plates, glasses, toys, food trays, biodegradable mulch sheets are produced.

In Sardinia, the thistle is wild plant that grows in profusion and without fertilizer. Bastioli’s team at Novamont realised that they could extract an oil that proved to be an excellent pesticide, and an effective lubricant for the maintenance of agricultural machinery.

Teaming up with partners in both Sardinia such as Versalis, the Matrica refinery and also Mater-Biotech, a joint venture with Genomatica in California began production of Mater-Bi from renewable sources and also creating sustainable rural regeneration.

In 2012 the Novamont research center was expanded by acquiring a medical biotechnology research center from Sigma-tau, redirecting its activities towards industrial biotechnology.

In 2019 a report about the biodegradability of compostable bags was published by the University of Pisa in the scientific journal Ecological Indicators in which is was found that Mater-Bi does not release persistent microplastics, as it is completely biodegradable within 20-30 days, as required by the OECD guidelines.

When exposed to marine micro-organisms, the material achieves high levels of biodegradation, substantially equal to those of paper, in a test period of less than one year. Furthermore, the speed of biodegradation increases as the particle size decreases

Bastioli has been a member of important EU working groups on climate change, environment and renewable raw materials, such as the European Union Bioeconomy Panel. Prime inventor of around 80 patent families in the sector of synthetic and natural polymers and transformation processes of renewable raw materials, she was awarded “European Inventor of the Year 2007” by the European Patent Office and the European Commission for her inventions related to starch-based bioplastics between 1991 and 2001.

She has become known as the Iron Lady and the Wonder Woman of the bioplastics industry.

Discover Solution 249: Nylon from ocean and landfill waste

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