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Bioplastics – What lies in the Future

December 23, 2019 | Chemicals & Materials

Problems caused by conventional plastics are well known. On the contrary, bioplastics which are derived from plant based sources are being promoted worldwide to alleviate the disasters caused by traditional plastics. Right from the production process that generates fewer harmful emissions, till their disposal, bioplastics seem to be environment friendly.


The traditional plastics are derived through petrochemical process. These plastics are actually a by-product of oil refining process, which are further modified through various chemical processes to produce long molecular chains – polymers. Bioplastics are sourced from various plants such as corn, sugarcane, or other by-products including corn husk or wood barks. Some of the plants such as switchgrass are a great source for bioplastics, as they grow in almost all the regions and grow in quick time. Moreover, as switchgrass is not a primary source of food, consuming it in the production of bioplastics will not affect the overall food demand.


The physical characteristics of bioplastics are much more similar to those of traditional plastics. Most of the bioplastic demand comes from packaging sector, where they are used in for food and beverage packaging. However, bioplastics still face some major issues such as insufficient shelf life. Back in 2010, Frito-lay introduced Sun chips bags that were made from bioplastics. The company was later on forced to replace these bags as customers complained that the bag was too noisy.


In another attempt, Coca-Cola is running a program called as ‘PlantBottle’ that manufacturers bottles containing 30% plant-based raw materials. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the major raw material used in Coca-Cola bottles, but rest of the materials constitutes sugar ethanol. However, these bottles are not completely biodegradable, which still remains an unanswered question. Polylactic acid (PLA) is another form of bioplastics. It is used in wide range of product packaging, including clothing. However, it cannot be used with hot foods as it has low melting point.


Problems such as recycling and biodegradability are a matter of concern for bioplastics. The process of making consumer plastics biodegradable might have a negative impact on the environment. Firstly, there are several types of biodegradability. Some types of bioplastics biodegrade in the presence of oxygen and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, as the litter left out may degrade in sunlight.


However, this process of decomposition may take several years and release toxic chemicals too. Some plastics get degraded when composted, but the consumer has to personally do it. The rest of the plastic needs industrial composting procedure. Moreover, the decomposition process of bioplastics releases methane gas, which is more harmful as compared to greenhouse gas emissions.


In spite of having all the research and development activities, the global market for bioplastics remains relatively small as compared to the conventional plastics. The global plastic production accounted for approximately 400 million tons. On the other hand, the overall bioplastics market size is growing rapidly and the bioplastic production is expected to surpass 800 million tons by 2030.


 GLOBAL BIOPLASTIC PRODUCTION CAPACITIES



One of the key drivers which is contributing to the growth of bioplastics is government initiatives, especially the regulations and incentives. For instance, the French government introduced a regulation, that imposed ban on oxo-biodegradable plastics, whose ‘micro plastic’ filaments do not degrade even in a span of a decade. In 2017, more than 100 organizations worldwide supported this decision to ban the use of packaging, owing to the threat it poses to the environment.


However, bioplastics are still not widely acceptable as traditional plastics, i.e.: the ones derived from petrochemicals. Regulations supporting the use of bioplastics still remains one of the major driving factors for bioplastics coupled with environmental concerns, rather than its demand from the consumer side. Having said this, the demand for biodegradable and bio-based plastics is getting more and more attention, which will contribute not only to the growth of bioplastics but also the technology required for this growth.


There are a several different ways to develop bioplastics which paves the way for innovation. The announcement made by the European Union in 2018 to cut the usage of single-use plastics significantly over the next few years is commendable. However, the recent campaign regarding the adverse effects of oxo-biodegradable plastics and the micro plastic filaments they produce has been restraining its adoption.


Nevertheless, there is still some hope for a better future. Israeli scientists have recently been successful in developing an innovative method to produce bioplastics that doesn’t need land or fresh water. Moreover, a group of scientists from Switzerland discovered last year that polybutylene adipate terephthalate or PBAT can be used as an alternative to polyethylene in the field of agriculture and can be consumed by soil microbes without generating plastic micro particles.


Avantium, a Netherlands based firm has been developing Polyethylene Furanoate (PEF) from corn-derived sugars as a substitute for PET bottles. Unlike PET, PEF can be separated during recycling process. This development can be marked as a successful attempt in the field of bioplastics as it led to signing a deal to produce Coco-Cola bottles. In fact, a lot of efforts have been laid to further develop PEF, which is expected to get fully commercialized by 2023.



 


To understand the environmental impact of bioplastics in a better way, it crucial to analyze the life cycle of this material through rigorous and unbiased experiments. This will permit us to measure and quantify the environmental effects generated by these materials accurately throughout their life cycle.


About the Author


Name: Snehit Borse


Snehit Borse is a Research Manager (Chemicals and Materials) at Fortune Business Insights, one of the most promising market research firms in the industry. He has an experience of over 6 years in market research, business intelligence, consulting and strategy building. Snehit’s primary focus is on assessing new market opportunities and market sizing, identifying and evaluating complex value chains across the globe. He has expertise in various industries that include packaging, polymers, petrochemicals, specialty chemicals, building products, and composites.

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