By the Blouin News Business staff

FEATURE: Bioplastics gaining momentum as tech advances

by in Europe.

Getty Images

Getty Images

The quality and quantity of bioplastics are increasing at remarkable rates. At the 10th European Bioplastics Conference held in Berlin last Thursday and Friday, the predicted future production growth was sensational: from around 1.7 million tons in 2014 to approximately 7.8 million tonnes in 2019. Not bad for an industry that barely existed a decade ago at the time of the first such conference.

This year’s event brought other headline-grabbing news too. “By 2020, 100% of our plastics will be made from renewable and recycled sources,” announced Per Stoltz, Sustainability Developer at IKEA. And the 10th Annual Bioplastics Award went to Mitsubishi Chemicals Corp. and Sharp for their development of the first-ever use of bioplastic as a smartphone screen. Mitsubishi’s biobased engineering plastic DURABIO thus ended the problem of cracking while increasing durability and optical properties.

Another example of a potentially transformative R&D path was announced in April, aiming to make biobased chemicals out of lignin (an abundant waste product of the pulp and paper industry). Scientists have been trying to do this for over thirty years but a new approach using soil bacteria instead of chemicals has tremendous promise. The three year, $4.55 million, program is led by Biome Bioplastics with support from Innovate UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, among others. Food Production Daily reported:
The consortium plans to use industrial biotechnology techniques to produce bio-based chemicals from lignin at a scale suitable for industrial testing. For the first time, it would allow natural polymers to compete with oil-based polymers on both cost and functionality.
But the growing bioplastics industry is not without its internal rifts. There is tension between different claims of being compostable, biodegradable, and biobased, when some do not break down in normal conditions and others use up to 40% petroleum inputs. The terminology is important because customers may be mislead about how eco-friendly particular bioplastics are, and a lot of sales are at stake as the market expands. Of the projected 7.8 million tons by 2019, the main drivers of growth are expected to be biobased, non-biodegradable plastics, such as bio-PE and bio-PET. Production capacities of biodegradable plastics, such as PLA, PHA, and starch blends, are lesser but also growing steadily — indeed, they’re projected to nearly double by 2019.

Still, all options are better than the default wasteful creation and disposal of petroleum-made plastic. Ford’s description of its bioplastic development summarizes the vast challenge succinctly: roughly 8% of all the oil used in the world each year goes to making plastic — half as raw materials and half to power factories. A total of 299 million tons of plastic was produced worldwide in 2013. And once used, between a quarter and half of all plastic is dumped into landfills. Much of the rest is burned, and relatively little is recycled; over 10 million tons wash into the oceans every year. And it can take 1,000 years for petroleum-based plastic to biodegrade.

But for bioplastics to really expand, all stakeholders involved need to be on board with uniform policies. Reinhard Büscher, Head of Unit Chemicals, DG GROWTH at the European Commission, emphasized this point in his keynote speech at the conference. “We need clear, harmonised standards that define the thresholds for sustainability and facilitate high-quality recycling, which is key to create a strong biobased circular economy,” he said.
Europe may have the lead in designing the processes, but when it comes down to low-cost, high-volume manufacturing, the future of bioplastics production will be in Asia. By 2019 over 80% of bioplastics will be made in Asia, while Europe will produce less than 5%, according to François de Bie, Chairman of European Bioplastics. The industry will advance one way or another, but support from European legislators would go a long way.
And as the industry expands it will achieve economies of scale, further boosting its competitiveness to replace conventional plastics. Packaging accounts for almost 70% of the total bioplastics market, and there is increasing consumer demand for eco-friendly materials in this regard. Using organic waste to replace oil-based plastics, thus making end products that are effective, cheap, and biodegradable — this looks unbeatable.