The rise of Bioplastics

Bioplastics are the new thing. Made from plants or microbes, they are widely viewed as a viable alternative to CO2 emitting fossil fuels, with the added bonus of being degradable.

Whilst massive growth is forecast for Bioplastics, there are still many questions to be answered. What is the true impact of making it? Where should it be used and what is the reality when we throw them away?

What are Bioplastics?

  • Bioplastics are plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, food waste, etc (Wikipedia)
  • Bioplastics can either be made by:
    • Extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs), or
    • It can be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms (National Geographic)

Overview

Global
Production

Low but growing

Bioplastics only account for around 0.01% of the plastics market globally

Raw Material
Impact

Theoretically zero

Plants are carbon neutral, however fossil fuels are used to assist cultivation. There are also concerns about competing with land for food.

Production
Impact

Twice normal plastics

The short chemical chains require an extra process step to bring them into line with their fossilised cousin, crude oil. This takes significant energy.

Distribution
Impact

Light and durable

Plastic is the perfect distribution material due to its lightweight and durability.

Household
use/year

A whole lot of plastic

We use around 200 plastic bottles per person per year. If bioplastics are only single use the savings wouldn’t be significant.

Recycling
Benefits

Approx. 20% saved

Although this reduction in CO2 is significant, most single use plastic is tricky to recycle.

Reuse
Benefits

Approx. 99.7% saved

Over a 40 reuse cycle and with some bio plastics the savings can be substantial.

Waste
Decompostion

Need right conditions

Bioplastics are a vast improvement on conventional plastics. However they need ideal conditions to degrade within a short timescale

Global production

Global production capacities of Bioplastics 2017-2022 (European Bioplastics)

  • The bioplastic market produced 2 million tons in 2017 (European Bioplastics)
  • The global market for bioplastics is predicted to grow by 20 percent over the next five years (European Bioplastics)
  • Packaging remains the largest field of application for bioplastics with almost 65 percent (1.2 million tonnes) of the total bioplastics market in 2018 (European Bioplastics).
  • Europe is a major hub for the entire bioplastics industry; it ranks highest in the field of research and development and is the industry’s largest market worldwide (European Bioplastics)

Raw material impact

A major concern with bioplastics is their competition with human food crops.  As the statistics show below, at current production this is tiny.

  • The land area used to grow biomass for the production of bioplastics in 2017 corresponded to 0.016% of the global agricultural area
  • Even with the predicted high growth-rates of the bioplastics industry over the next years, the land-use share would only slightly increase to 0.021% of the agricultural area by 2022 (European Bioplastics)

However, as mentioned earlier if bioplastics were to become a significant player in the plastics market then land use could become a problem. Solutions to this are:

  • To use non food crops, were more of the plant can be used (Vegware)
  • To focus on using starches from other crop waste (European Bioplastics)

Production impact

More fossil fuel energy is used in the production of bioplastics than for both Polyethylene and PET (Cambridge MIT Institute)

Distribution impact

Household use

  • Bioplastics can either be made by:
    • Extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs), or
    • It can be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms (National Geographic)

The three different types of Bioplastic (WRAP)

The 3 types of Bioplastics listed below refer to the diagram on the left.  They are:

  1. Bio-based or partially bio-based non-biodegradable plastics such as bio-based PE or PP
  2. Plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable, such as biodegradable PLA and PHA or PBS
  3. Plastics that are fossil-based and biodegradable, such as PBAT
  • PLA plastic is commonly used in food packaging, while PHA is often used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches (National Geographic)

The current mix of bioplastics

  • While 100% bio-based plastics are mainly used to substitute the plastics that might end up as litter (usually shopping bags, food packaging, disposables), partially bio-based plastics such as polythene manufactured from sugar cane, can provide a near-perfect substitute for oil-based equivalents in products where durability and robustness is vital (Bioplastics Guide)
  • Two types of Bioplastics for food purposes (Bioplastics Guide)
    • Bio-based Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – made from sugarcane
    • Bio-based Polyethylene (PE) – made from sugarcane

 

  • Polypropylene (PP) is a thermoplastic polymer with a melting point of approximately 165°C. The higher melting point of polypropylene makes it eligible for use in certain plastic items such as medical products and dishwasher safe containers. Bio based polypropylene have similar characteristics to synthetic polypropylene, but is manufactured from bio-based raw materials such as corn, sugarcane, and beet (Market Research Publisher)

 

  • Some of the major players in the global bio based polypropylene market include Braskem, SABIC, Biobent Polymers, Neste, FKuR Kunststoff GmbH, Novamont SpA, Sinopec Group, PTT Global, Global Bioenergies, Trellis Earth Products, Inc., and DowDuPont. Some other companies in the global bio based polypropylene market are Mitsubishi Chemical, LyondellBasell, ExxonMobil, and Reliance Industries (Allied Market Research)
  • The Dow Chemical Company
  • Washington Penn Plastic Co., Inc.
  • Braskem S.A.
  • Solvay S.A.
  • Biobent Polymers
  • FKuR Kunststoff GmbH
  • LyondellBasell Industries Holdings
  • China Petrochemical
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation
  • INEOS Group Holdings
  • source:
  • If PLA [bioplastic] does leak out, it also will not biodegrade in the ocean.  It’s really not any different from those industrial polymers. It can be composted in an industrial facility, but if the town doesn’t have one, then it’s not any different (National Geographic)
  • The global market for Bioplastics is predicted to grow by 20 percent over the next five years (European Bioplastics)

Global production capacities of Bioplastics 2017-2022 (European Bioplastics)

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