The study, called “Growing Tomorrow’s Green Materials”, said that biopolymers – biologically derived materials - currently have just a one per cent value share of the $1.6 trillion annual global plastics market and around 0.1 per cent in volume terms. It adds that as a group, biopolymers' current performance is worse compared to their conventional counterparts “on every dimension except the ecological”.
Food packaging is one of a growing number of industries where the development and growth of bioplastics is being scutinised with interest.
Challenges and opportunities
But despite these challenges, growing consumer demand and the continued volatility of oil prices still means the outlook for bioplastics is buoyant, said the report. Even so, their impact is likely to remain limited far into the future.
“Propelled by the momentum of consumer sentiment and petroleum prices, green materials will continue to grow at double digits – but they are starting from such a small base that they will not meaningfully impact the world’s economy or ecology for decades to come,” said the study.
Conventional oil-based polymers are effective but environmental concerns about certain ingredients and landfill creation means that consumers and companies have targeted the development of greener alternatives as a priority. Giants such as BASF, Dow and DSM have all highlighted the expansion of biopolymers as a major goal for the future. Smaller companies, academics and larger industry players from outside the sector are also looking to established themselves in the bioplastics market, which should all contribute towards the sector’s long-term growth, said the report’s authors.
However, in order for biopolymers to fulfil their potential they must be effective, with their performance levels equivalent or superior to conventional materials. This includes such attributes as temperature tolerance, physical strength, crystallinity and hardness, said the study. Factors such as unit cost, functional lifetime and end-of-life value are all important when considering the economic competitiveness of biopolymers, said the research. And of course, they have to be environmentally sound.
To improve market penetration in the near-term, said researchers, developers should focus on applications where “effective performance is a secondary consideration (as in single-use applications); economic impact is minimal and ecological profile merits a premium”. Many plastic products – including some packaging – are over-engineered and this give biopolymer suppliers the opportunity “to work with buyers to target the optimal level of performance, while offering more ecologically sound products that appeal to consumers”, said the report.
In the short-term, the cost of biopolymers will limit them to niche applications. Although the performance of some biopolymers like polylactic acid (PLA) can match their petroleum-based counterparts, these materials cost nearly twice as much, as long as oil is below $100/barrel.
“Even if oil prices rise, increasing plant feedstock costs may sap the relative benefit of renewable materials,” cautions the report.
The report concludes: “Consumer concerns about conventional polymers will continue to rise, but economic issues will be the primary drivers of green materials’ adoption by corporations and consumers alike.”