Challenges and opportunities for bio-based plastics

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Bio-based plastics Plastic

Bio-based plastics have the potential to substitute almost all oil-based plastics but will not do so in the near future because of higher production costs and restricted output capacity, said a new study.

The research, commissioned by industry bodies European Bioplastics (EP) and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE), states that technically bio-based plastics could replace up to 90 per cent of the consumption of conventional materials.

But the report authored by researchers at the University of Utrecht cautioned the industry was “still in its infancy”​. It added the speed of any bio-plastics takeover would depend on a number of factors.

Price of oil

“Bio-based plastics will not substitute oil-based polymers in the near future for several reasons including low oil price, high production cost and restricted production capacity of biomass-based polymers that limit the technically possible growth of these plastics in the coming years",​ said Patrick Navard, chairman of the governing board of EPNOE.

The study defines bio-based plastics as “man-made or man-processed macromolecules derived from biological resources and for plastic and fibre applications”​. The authors explained they avoided use of the term bioplastics because of ambiguity- as it is sometimes used for bio-based materilas and some that are biodegradeable. This can include those made from fossil fuels instead of renewable sources, they added.

The study estimated that the global output capacity for bio-based plastics, 0.36 million tones (Mt) in 2007, would climb to 2.3Mt by 2013 – an annual growth rate of 37 per cent. But the annual growth rate is forecast to slow markedly from 2013 to 2020 to 6 per cent – with capacity predicted to be 3.45Mt. The research said that in 2007 the most important products in terms of output volumes were starch plastics and PLA – both at (0.15Mt). By 2020, the report estimates the top outputs will be starch plastics on 1.3Mt, PLA at 0.8Mt, bio-based PE at 0.6Mt and PHA at 0.4Mt.

"We should keep a close eye on these figures",​ said Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director of European Bioplastics. "Important major projects were delayed in the years 2008 and 2009 due to the financial and economic crisis.”

He added: “The role that lightweight conventional plastics played in the past, substituting durable materials like iron and steel in vast products, could soon be taken over by bio-based plastics. As the study shows, the potential is enormous.”

Three scenarios

The study looks at all major bio-based plastic groups, examining their production process, the material properties and the extent to which they could substitute petrochemical polymers from a technical point of view. The prices of these novel materials and their main producers are also scrutinized.

Three scenarios are examined to gauge potential future growth i.e. a baseline business-as-usual situation, as well as an optimistic and a conservative picture. The results for these scenarios are also compared to the findings of a previous study made in 2005.

The new study stated that considerable technological leaps have been made in bio-based plastics since 2004. Innovations in material and product development, environmental benefits as well as the gradual depletion of crude oil increasingly call for polymers made from renewable raw materials.

The report also concluded the sector must address challenges such as the performance of some bio-based plastic materials, their relatively high production and processing costs, as well as the need to minimise use of agricultural land and forest. This latter factor is important as an issue will be to avoid competition for food production and adverse environmental effects.

Read the report via the following link.

Related topics Processing & packaging

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