About 8% of the oil the world produces is utilized to make plastic. Unlike regular plastics, biodegradable plastics, or bioplastics, are not made from petroleum, but rather from plants or other biological material.
For example, some bioplastics are derived from polylactic acids (PLAs) found in corn and sugarcane. Others can be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), which are engineered from microorganisms. PLAs, the cheapest form of bioplastics, make most of our recyclable food packaging and are also used for bottles, utensils, and textiles.
Are Bioplastics Better?
Bioplastics have two big advantages over regular plastics. The first is that they reduce the carbon expelled to the atmosphere because that carbon has already been used by plants, and has not remained trapped underground like the case of oil. The second, and more important, is that bioplastics are renewable. Plant biomass can be continuously grown all over the world.
The question of whether bioplastics are better than plastics is, however, a more complex one. Pollution, normally associated with oil production, is also present in the production of bioplastics, due to the fertilizers used to grow crops. Also, land that could be used for food production in a food-scarce world is instead diverted.
However, both impacts can be reduced if pollution reduction protocols are followed and environmental-friendly species are used. For example, corn starch is the primary feedstock for producing PLA in North America, while Asia has had immense success with cassava, and South and Central America with sugarcane.
The second issue to consider is that, when bioplastics are discarded, they can be sent to a landfill or an industrial compost site. If it ends up in marine environments, bioplastic breaks down just like regular plastics, lasting for decades as a danger to marine life. Composting of bioplastic requires intense heat to allow microbes to break it down, and heat requires not only energy but also a planned distribution of industrial facilities.
All in all, bioplastics are a great alternative when handled adequately through geographical distribution, a composting infrastructure, and consumer education. Their marketing keeps attracting users. However, there also needs to be a system to accommodate the materials once a wider audience embraces them.
Bioplastics Business and Innovation
Bioplastic can be created from more than plants, although these tend to be cheaper. Wood chips, straw, and switchgrass, among others, are currently being developed and have started to penetrate the market.
A boutique in the UK, for example, creates furniture made of Fomes fomentarius mushrooms mixed with wood chips that would otherwise go to waste. Because fungi cell walls are lined with a fibrous substance called chitin, they are a strong and flexible material that grows incredibly fast and in a small space. And due to the mushrooms growing directly in molds, the furniture literally grows itself with minimal labor.
The sector that has seen some incredible innovations in terms of bioplastics is packaging. Several companies are currently experimenting with packaging films made from milk proteins, which are excellent oxygen barriers and completely food-safe, among other new materials that show great promise.
The leading segment in bioplastics today is starch blends. Starch blended biodegradable plastics are edible and can be used in food packaging. They are also renewable, low in cost, biodegradable, and great for producing diapers and landfill covers. It’s not hard to imagine how diverse industries like food and beverage, pharmaceutical, and others can benefit from such materials.
A Growing Industry
The bioplastics industry has been developing with particular strength in Europe, where the market provides a legal framework to develop these technologies, and people have a higher awareness of plastic waste. Many European countries have banned single-use plastics. France was the first one to do so in 2016.
With the European market promoting strategies to grow the expansion of bioplastics, it’s expected that the sector will grow considerably in the coming years, reaching a projected value of over $20.85 billion by 2026 and a CAGR of 9.6% for the period.
Several companies are leading the bioplastics market growth.
NatureWorks is jointly owned by Thailand’s largest chemical producer, PTT Global Chemical, and Cargill. Operating in North America, Europe, and Asia, it develops biopolymers for a sustainable source of plastics using carbohydrates from plants. NatureWorks creates textiles, durable goods, films, packaging, disposable flatware, and adhesives.
Good Natured produces and distributes one of North America’s widest assortments of consumer products and packaging, offering over 100 plant-based and BPA-free food packaging designs. Their most popular item is the on-the-go BPI certified compostable hot cups and boxes with enhanced leak resistance.
Biome Plastics has headquarters in Southampton, UK, and produces biopolymers suitable for short-life and disposable products and durable applications. Biome works with coating for paper, board and film, extracts platform chemicals from lignin, and in 2017 successfully launched a non-woven mesh for beverage filtration.
BASF, from Germany, is the largest chemical producer in the world. BASF’s bioplastic is a high-quality, completely compostable polymer made of ecoflex® and PLA derived from renewable sugar.
Corbion, a Dutch food and biochemicals company, produces chemicals derived from organic acids, bio-ingredient based foods, and lactic acid-based solutions for the food, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries. Corbion also has a joint venture with BASF for the development of a biobased form of succinic acid.
The Future of Bioplastics
Without a doubt, the market will continue to move toward the use and development of more bioplastics and biopolymers based on innovative materials. As the customer base increases, so will the demand for quality renewable bioplastics for packaging, products, and applications.
The markets from both Europe and North America are poised to benefit from this growth. Asia-Pacific is also expected to show the highest CAGR between 2020 to 2026, driven by lifestyle changes, high research and development, and a growing number of consumers due to rapid urbanization.
In their “Bioplastics & Biopolymers Market - Global Industry Analysis, Market Size, Opportunities and Forecast, 2015-2026,” research group Acumen stated: “The growing demand for high-quality foods, an increase in purchasing power of consumers, growing health awareness among consumers, and growing innovation and development from manufacturers in bioplastics & biopolymers further expected to raise the segment during the forecast period.”
A factor that would positively impact the sector would be the wider adoption of bioplastics by private label store brands. Using this type of packaging items would increase the demand for production and consumption and propel the market.
Ideally, global chains and supermarkets will lead the way. Sectors that are already using bioplastics will continue to do so while innovating in their uses for medicine, toys, and fashion. In the meantime, we’ll have to find optimal recycling solutions for bioplastics and create a better infrastructure to prepare for a greener future.
The question is not whether the bioplastics market will grow, but rather how quickly and in which segments specifically. Consumers want to make responsible, green purchases, and companies can also benefit from them through tax credits and incentives, healthier workplaces, improved efficiency, and cost savings.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.