π Industry
Bioplastics: a clean alternative?

Bioplastics industry: the basics

James Bowers, Chief editor at Polytechnique Insights
On February 2nd, 2021 |
4 min reading time
James Bowers
James Bowers
Chief editor at Polytechnique Insights
Key takeaways
  • Bioplastics occupy 2% of the global plastic market, with an estimated 16% annual growth rate.
  • Industry has long focused on conventional, fossil fuel-based plastics as they were cheap and readily available.
  • Pressure from consumers along with EU regulations have pushed industrials to seek greener alternatives to conventional plastics.
  • Bioplastics are either biodegradable or produced from biomass with low carbon emissions – or both.
  • The market is a combination of small niches; there are challenges ahead if the sector is to continue growth.

Over the last decade, bio­plas­tics have emerged on the indus­tri­al radar. Tak­ing their place on the glob­al mar­ket, today they are said to hold around $8.3 bil­lion 1 of the $569 bil­lion annu­al val­ue of the plas­tics indus­try 2. On top of that, pro­jec­tions of their mar­ket share show it to be on the rise with an annu­al growth rate of around 16%. Indeed, whilst bio­plas­tics remain high­ly spe­cialised, this bud­ding sec­tor would seem to be forg­ing a place for itself in the world. But not all indus­tri­al firms agree.

To bet­ter under­stand the stakes here, it is worth point­ing out that bio­plas­tics are not new. Whilst they have only just start­ed to make waves, they have been around for as long as ‘con­ven­tion­al’ (fos­sil fuel-based) plas­tics. Their ori­gins can be traced back to late 19th Cen­tu­ry chem­istry lab­o­ra­to­ries when inven­tors were tin­ker­ing around with nat­ur­al poly­mers like cel­lu­lose. So why are we only real­ly hear­ing about them now? The short answer: indus­try pre­ferred fos­sil fuel-based plastics.

Sib­ling rivalry

Raw mate­r­i­al for con­ven­tion­al plas­tics comes from fos­sil-fuel hydro­car­bons. They are effi­cient, cheap and resis­tant. Hav­ing these char­ac­ter­is­tics is actu­al­ly how they won the favour of indus­tri­als through­out the 20th Cen­tu­ry. Bio­plas­tics were still there; they were just hang­ing around in the shad­ows.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, how­ev­er, the char­ac­ter­is­tics that made com­mon plas­tics so favoured by indus­try, are now exact­ly what are work­ing against them. Indus­tri­al process­es using petro­chem­i­cals are a source of car­bon emis­sions and the resis­tance of these poly­mers to biodegra­da­tion makes them prob­lem­at­ic waste prod­ucts.

Even though the two types of bio­plas­tics come under the same umbrel­la term, they pro­vide sep­a­rate solu­tions to two dis­tinct envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges faced by the plas­tics indus­try today – car­bon emis­sions and waste man­age­ment. First­ly, biobased plas­tics are derived from bio­mass. They are made from sus­tain­able raw mate­ri­als like sug­ar cane, corn or veg­etable oil, and often result in less car­bon emis­sions for pro­duc­tion. They can be also be made from food residue and there is research look­ing into using non-food crops such as cel­lu­lose.

Sec­ond­ly, biodegrad­able plas­tics are pro­duced using petro­chem­i­cals – as with con­ven­tion­al plas­tic – but are dubbed to pose less of a waste prob­lem. Some bio­plas­tics are both biobased and biodegrad­able, such as poly­lac­tic acid (PLA). And oth­ers have been sim­ply labelled ‘plant-based’, as they are made using bio­log­i­cal mate­ri­als but blend­ed with petro­chem­i­cal mate­ri­als in pro­duc­tion mean­ing the end prod­uct is some­where in between.

“Bio” isn’t always better

Bio­plas­tics may sound like an envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly alter­na­tive to con­ven­tion­al plas­tics, but this is only part­ly true. There are con­cerns that the term ‘biodegrad­able’ may be mis­lead­ing, often requir­ing very pre­cise tem­per­a­ture and pH con­di­tions, or rely­ing on spe­cif­ic microor­gan­isms. This means that in many cas­es bio­plas­tics should not be released into the envi­ron­ment, nor used in home com­posters. Instead, they require indus­tri­al com­post­ing process­es, which occur at 50–70°C. And few biode­grade in sea­wa­ter con­di­tions, where much plas­tic waste unfor­tu­nate­ly ends up. There are also ques­tions around their tox­i­c­i­ty, sug­gest­ing that they may not be too dif­fer­ent from con­ven­tion­al plas­tics after all.

Also, biobased plas­tics could end up com­pet­ing with the food indus­try for crops or land. Accord­ing to Euro­pean Bio­plas­tics, the indus­try used 0.7 mil­lion hectares in 2020. Whilst this fig­ure is only equiv­a­lent to 0.021% of avail­able agri­cul­tur­al land, there are still con­cerns that the indus­try may lead to unnec­es­sary defor­esta­tion. So-called 3rd gen­er­a­tion sources, or algae, do exist but quan­ti­ties are cur­rent­ly insuf­fi­cient for pro­duc­tion at indus­tri­al scales.

While mul­ti-nation­al com­pa­nies like Total and Arke­ma are focus­ing much atten­tion on break­ing into the bio­plas­tic mar­ket, oth­ers are steer­ing clear. L’Oréal have announced that they will not be using biobased plas­tics for the time being. In a state­ment to us they said, “even though cur­rent biobased bio­plas­tics present favor­able green­house gas emis­sions in com­par­i­son to petro­chem­i­cal plas­tics, oth­er envi­ron­men­tal indi­ca­tors such as water con­sump­tion and soil use result in an over­all neg­a­tive foot­print.” Nev­er­the­less, the com­pa­ny is still invest­ing in devel­op­ment of the biobased plas­tics, just not using it in their own prod­ucts for the time being.

Bio­plas­tic breakthrough

In Europe, 9.4 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic in 2018 were col­lect­ed for recy­cling, even though 62 mil­lions tonnes were pro­duced 3. Hence, pub­lic opin­ion and con­sumer pres­sure have dri­ven new reg­u­la­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in the EU, to find plas­tic alter­na­tives. Some assess­ments show that the plas­tics mar­ket annu­al growth is 3.2% so, when com­pared to the 16% growth in bio­plas­tics, we see the lat­ter looks like it is gain­ing ground. But for many, that is not enough. Wor­ried about their rep­u­ta­tion, large con­sumer indus­tries such as food and auto­mo­biles are push­ing for new solu­tions.

So here we are. Bio­plas­tics pop their head into the meet­ing. Rather than com­plete­ly change busi­ness mod­el, indus­tri­als have been seek­ing out replace­ments for con­ven­tion­al plas­tics. Thus, it is no sur­prise that around the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, devel­op­ment of indus­tri­al scale bio­plas­tics increased, in tan­dem with bio­fu­els.

Since then, the mar­ket has start­ed to cre­ate itself a niche – or rather sev­er­al nich­es. On the one hand they pro­vide biodegrad­able solu­tions. On the oth­er, they can steer us away from the use of car­bon emit­ting fos­sil fuels. Two appli­ca­tions with promise to help com­bat our plas­tic addic­tion. In their cur­rent form, how­ev­er, bio­plas­tics can­not entire­ly replace plas­tics in all appli­ca­tions. Hence, indus­tries are still ques­tion­ing the place for these mate­ri­als in the big­ger pic­ture along­side oth­er strate­gies such as the cir­cu­lar econ­o­my or car­bon off­set­ting. Over the last 20 years they have sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduced in price, too, from ~$1000 per kg to sev­er­al dol­lars per kg, today.

Small, pre­cise markets

Today, pack­ag­ing accounts for more than half the bio­plas­tics mar­ket. And it would appear that the demand from con­sumers is there. In a 2019 UK study, 50% of respon­dents said they would be hap­py to pay more for eco-friend­ly pack­ag­ing 4. Although, it remains to be seen whether as many would actu­al­ly do so when faced with the real­i­ty of a high­er priced prod­uct.

Since 2017, EU reg­u­la­tions have start­ed to impose the use of biodegrad­able and com­postable bags for fruit and veg­eta­bles. But ques­tions remain about their use in a real-world sce­nario, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regards to the strict con­di­tions required for their biodegrad­abil­i­ty.

The auto­mo­tive indus­try, close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with oil, is under pres­sure to be green­er too. Their cus­tomers are more con­cerned about car­bon foot­prints. And oth­er sec­tors such as farm­ing have found uses for bio­plas­tics as agri­cul­tur­al films where their per­for­mance pre­cise­ly meets demand and reg­u­la­to­ry con­straints.

From a sci­en­tif­ic point of view, the emer­gence of these new mate­ri­als rep­re­sents oppor­tu­ni­ties, which chem­i­cal engi­neers can take back to the draw­ing board. New raw mate­ri­als offer a whole range of pos­si­bil­i­ties to dis­cov­er new poly­mers with com­plete­ly unique appli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, this approach is yet to bear fruit. And con­cerns remain with regards to tox­i­c­i­ty of the mate­ri­als, the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the sup­ply chain and the need to find raw mate­r­i­al that does not com­pete with food sup­plies.

Nev­er­the­less, it would seem that the biggest push for bio­plas­tics is com­ing from above, with busi­ness lead­ers dri­ving the move­ment. Deci­sion-mak­ers are call­ing for a coor­di­nat­ed effort; major poly­mer man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Total are work­ing with biotech firms. But the issues are com­plex and there is still some progress to be made on the R&D front.


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