Are Bio-Based Plastics the Answer to the Plastic Crisis?

As our global addiction to plastic worsens, bio-based plastics offer an alternative solution. While 85% of plastics can be substituted with bio-based plastics, bio-based plastics account for only 1% of the 335 million tons of plastics produced annually. However, innovators are redesigning plastic, providing better end-of-life solutions to create new markets and addressing high consumer demand for alternatives. Questions remain such as:

  • How biodegradable is bio-based plastic really?
  • What options exist?
  • Is the market ready and cost competitive?
  • Who are the market leaders?

Attraction

The global production capacity for bio-based plastics was 2.1m tons in 2018, while over 300m tons of plastics were produced that same year. However, the bio-based plastics market is expected to be worth $68 billion by 2024 with a CAGR of 8.8%. There are significant regulatory drivers for the bio-plastics industry. The US’s  Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act debuted last week, which will force Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for plastic bottles and plastic packaging in the US. This follows similar bans on plastic from the EU (starting 2021) and China (starting in major cities in 2020 and rolling out to other cities and towns in 2022).  Further, the governments of 60 countries (and counting) have signed up to the UN Environment Clean Seas campaign, which aims to engage governments and the private sector in tackling ocean plastic pollution.  

Increasing consumer pressure is also forcing corporates into action, with companies like HP citing rising consumer awareness as a key reason for change.  In October 2019, the investor non-profit As You Sow had 40 investors signed up to its Investor Declaration on Plastic Pollution, including AXA, Aviva and Hermes. Within the declaration, investors committed to accelerate research on potential solutions and the continued development of alternatives.  

In looking for solutions, alternative materials such as glass and paper for packaging have been considered, but they have a higher carbon footprint to produce, and paper is considered more difficult to reuse. As a result, bio-based plastic is being heralded as the potential best option.

Business Models

For bio-based plastics, packaging remains the most common application (~65% of capacity).  There are many examples of more high-value applications, including: personal care, medical, apparel & textile, consumer electronics, environmental services, etc. Around 50% of all bio-based plastics produced are drop-in plastics — bio-based, non-biodegradable materials obtained from renewable sources with identical technical properties as their petroleum counterparts, such as bioderived-PE and PET. 

Certain plastics (biobased and non-biobased) may be biodegradable and/or compostable. Biodegradable plastics are those which degrade over time with the help of micro-organisms, while compostable plastics degrade under conditions and within a certain timeframe (and are certified as such). According to the New Plastics Economy, producers reported using an average of 62% renewable feedstocks, and an average of 42% feedstock from responsibly managed sources. Pivot Materials, developer of composite plastics for injection and extrusion molding applications, produce both types. Its first bio-based plastic uses 100% renewable materials including natural fibers (bamboo & rice hulls), blended with a biopolymer (PLA, TPS) and is used for household and disposable plastic items. Pivot’s other bio-based plastic uses ~15% – 45% renewable materials such as natural fibers (bamboo, rice hulls) and blends with synthetic plastics (PP, PE), which can be used in shipping pallets and car parts. Cleantech Group spoke to Kylee Guenther, CEO of Pivot Materials, who said its bio-based plastic is cost-comparative to conventional plastics and offers a stronger and lighter alternative.

Similarly, Origin Materials boast a carbon ne gative PET which utilizes cellulose from forestry waste. In 2017, the company raised $40million in a Growth Equity round partnering with Nestle, Danone and more recently PepsiCo.  In January this year, Loliware, developer of seaweed-based bio-based plastics, raised $6 million in seed funding from investors New York Ventures, Magic Hour, For Good VC, Geekdom Fund, HumanCo VC, CityRock and Closed Loop Partners. The funding will be used for R&D, scaling and to launch new straw-based bio-based plastics and utensils.

Bio-based plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), are recyclable but must be separated from petroleum-based plastics. The low volume of bio-based plastics in waste streams means separation of bio-based plastics isn’t economically viable. Radical Plastics has developed additives, which when compounded with plastics makes them biodegradable. These can also be recycled with normal plastics. Cleantech Group spoke to Kristin Taylor, CEO and Founder of Radical Plastic who said “Our initial target market is in agriculture – specifically, plastic mulch film. Farmers spend over $4B a year on polyethylene mulch film. With film made from the Radical Plastics resin, they can just till it into the soil where it will biodegrade before the next growing season.” The company is currently running field trials following successful lab trials.  

Technology

Bio-based plastics are generally seen to have a lower carbon footprint than their fossil-fuel derived counterparts. Biodegradable plastics, such as PHA, have the additional benefit of decomposing in nature in a short period of time.  Interest continues to increase, yet there are limitations.

  • PLAs (polylactic acid) and newcomer PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) are expected to drive growth through 2022. PLA is expected to increase by 50%. PHAs, now entering the market, are expected to triple in production capacity by 2022. PEF, a PET substitute, is expected to enter markets in 2023.
  • Breakthroughs in biosciences are accelerating R&D and driving cost reduction, performance improvements, and property tunability. PLA and PHA, which have mostly found application in packaging are increasingly being considered for other applications.  
  • Feedstock innovations. The sustainability of using first generation biomass (sugarcane, corn, sugar beet) has long been discussed. There is increasing interest in using what are deemed to be more sustainable, alternative feedstocks: seaweed, algae, food waste, wood/lignin, carbon dioxide.
  • Issue with food grade plastics. New materials generally require authorization if they are to come into contact with food (in the U.S. and EU). While certain bio-based plastics, such as PHA, have been cleared for use in the U.S. and the EU, several regulatory issues need to be considered for new materials or for new applications for existing materials

 Competition

PLA production continues to grow and in September 2019, Total-Corbion PLA, a joint venture between Total and specialty ingredients producer Corbion, opened its PLA bio-based plastics plant in Rayong, Thailand. The plant is the second largest bio-based plastic manufacturing plant in the world, producing 75,000 tons per annum. Corbion has continued to evaluate production of PLA from second generation biomass feedstocks.

Meanwhile, in December 2019, Japanese chemicals company, Kaneka completed work on their biodegradable plastic manufacturing plant with capacity for production of 5,000 tonnes per annum of PHBH (similar properties to PP and PE). They join other companies with commercial production of PHA including Danimer Scientific and Newlight Technologies which use canola and CO2 as main feedstocks, respectively.

Elsewhere, in October 2019, major plastic FMCG user, Nestlé unveiled a packaging research institute to help boost development of ‘sustainable’ materials including bio-based materials.

 What’s to Come?

The increase in new bio-based plastics is somewhat heartening though much still needs to be done in order to reduce our reliance on plastics overall.  It is encouraging to see the development and investments in this sector, a factor largely driven by consumer pressure. The evolution of bio-based plastics and their ability to biodegrade into their environment has the potential to avoid some of the drawbacks which currently exists for this versatile and ubiquitous material.

 

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