Plastics without petroleum: History and politics of 'green' plastics in the United States

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Ferguson, Sean Michael
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Electronic thesis
Science and technology studies
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Research in science and technology studies (STS) indicates that social structures shape perceptions of problems, condition viable solutions, and limit the diversity of stakeholders and ideas present in the social construction of technology. This study examines these processes in the history and current debates about bioplastics. The dissertation asks who has influenced the social construction of bioplastics and why bioplastics have become part of a larger bioeconomic vision now. Theoretical insights are drawn from the sociological theory of the treadmill of production, which argues that environmental problems cannot be solved in a capitalist system in which the federal government, private industries, and organized labor continuously seek the expansion of production and consumption at the expense of environmental sustainability. Major players in the chemical and biotechnology industries have pursued bioplastics as a means of continuing economic growth and consumption of goods, even as petroleum becomes costly and environmentalists voice objections to petrochemicals. There are many critiques of bioplastics and their impacts at every stage of bioplastics, from sourcing feedstocks from food crops to disrupting existing recycling and composting systems. Nevertheless, the bioplastics currently on the market were not designed to resolve these environmental concerns. Increasingly, however, activists are using non-governmental institutions, particularly the development of voluntary standards, to shape the industry and technology. The study examines the extent to which such reforms might lead to the production of more sustainable alternatives to petrochemicals.
Among the new technologies heralded as part of the emerging bioeconomy are plastics made from plant material, known as bioplastics. This dissertation examines the political and historical underpinnings of the bioplastics that are now being offered as an alternative to petrochemicals in the United States. As a case study of "green" technological development, bioplastics challenge dominant conceptions of innovation for sustainability. The bioplastics being developed and marketed today are the outcome of interventions in commodity crop prices, incubation of research on biomass during periods of fossil fuel dominance, and the commercialization of publicly funded research. Their origins can be traced at least as far back as the 1920s, when advocates of "chemurgy" encouraged the federal government to create research centers to discover new industrial uses of agricultural crops.
Ultimately, this dissertation presents the history and politics surrounding the field of bioplastics in order to highlight how things "might have been otherwise" and what changes in society could be useful for producing more sustainable technologies.
December 2012
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY
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