"This innovation is often overlooked by politicians," said Harald Kaeb, chairman of the International Biodegradable Polymers Association & Working group (IBAW).
Indifference could hamper the sector's ability to effectively challenge market leaders such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate), he warns. Billions need to be invested now if the technical potential of bioplastics such as biodegradable polymers and biopolymers is to be fully tapped.
Biodegradable polymers (BDPs) and biopolymers are similar in structure to conventional plastic polymers, and standard polymer processing methods can be used to transform them into an enormous variety of packaging products.
The main difference between BDPs and conventional polymers is that, due to their physical and chemical structure, BDPs can be broken down by microorganisms, such as fungi and bacteria.
They are therefore 100 per cent biodegradable and much better for the environment, according to experts. About 10 per cent of the application areas for plastics could be covered by current BDPs, especially in the packaging sector, the IBAW estimates.
But in order for this to happen, about five million tons of polymers would need to be made available in Europe.
The potential will only be fulfilled if the required economic conditions ensure that the necessary investments are made.
One positive example is the German Packaging Directive, which provides an exemption for compostable plastics packaging. In future, compostable packaging will be exempt from the 'Green Dot' fees.
However, because the sector is so new, it still faces problems of communication. The terms "compostable" and "biodegradable" are often employed when it comes to packaging, but as Kaeb points out, these terms are not protected.
This can give rise to the sort of confusion that can undermine a whole sector. The issue of "degradable" carry bags made from the petroleum-based plastic polyethylene is a case in point.
Some manufacturers claim these types of bags will decompose due to special additives, but they do not meet the EN 13432 Standard, which determines whether packaging is biodegradable and compostable.
"Manufacturers are thereby capitalising on the users' lack of knowledge," said an IBAW spokesperson. "This product concept is seeking to ride on thewave of the bioplastics innovation."
The IBAW says it is encouraging manufacturers to make a voluntary commitment to certify their products and label them with the "seedling", the compostability logo. Again, government support is needed if the sector is to truly flourish.
However, the continued high price for crude oil and conventional plastics has definitely opened an avenue of opportunity to the bioplastics packaging sector. And following the positive response to the special exhibition "Innovationparc Bioplastics in Packaging" at Interpack 2005 in Dusseldorf last month, bioplastic manufacturers are now looking to challenge more conventional packaging sources.
Polymer producers such as NatureWorks, Novamont and Procter & Gamble, flexible film manufacturers such as Cedap, and producers of rigid packaging such as Autobar were in attendance. "There have been hurdles, but everything is falling into place," said Mark Vergauwen, business development manager of NatureWorks LLC. "There is a lot more work going on, thanks largely to the power of referral."
Indeed,growing environmental awareness and consumer power coupled with the inexorable rise in pre-packaged disposable meals means that food manufacturers and packagers are increasingly being targeted to improve their environmental performances.
"We anticipate that compostable bioplastics packaging will soon reach supermarket shelves throughout Europe," said Kaeb. "The interest was overwhelming."