Plastics are the backbone of many essential industries, and our world’s reliance on plastic products is growing fast. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates global consumption of plastics will triple between 2019 and 2060, from 460 million tonnes to 1.23 billion tonnes per year.
To ensure that more plastic does not mean more pollution, the plastics industry must find sustainable ways to decrease their environmental impact from inception through disposal. One solution is using bioplastics — plastics made wholly or in part from renewable feedstock sources, such as sugarcane and corn. Some bioplastics are also biodegradable or compostable, but material limitations prevent widespread adoption.
While bioplastics are not the final answer for solving sustainability issues in the plastics industry, manufacturers can take a step in the right direction by adopting renewable, bio-based or biodegradable polymers to improve the impact of their products on the environment and promote a circular economy. Custom Market Insights estimates the global bioplastics market will reach $29.8 billion by 2030, so now is a great time to evaluate bioplastics’ potential.
Bioplastics quickly gained popularity in the 2010s as consumer demand for sustainable plastics increased. Instead of using fossil fuels to create polymers, manufacturers derive bioplastics from renewable biomass sources like plants, algae and microorganisms. Bioplastics can be more degradable and resource efficient than traditional plastics, two essential factors in creating a more sustainable plastic product life cycle.
Bioplastics is a large group of materials with a variety of applications and properties. According to European Bioplastics, any material that is considered a “bioplastic” must be biobased, meaning it is derived from organic materials, or biodegradable, meaning its chemical structure is degradable to natural substances depending on the surrounding environment. Just because a bioplastic is biobased does not mean it is biodegradable, and vice versa.
Researchers and developers are constantly working to find more viable biomass sources with similar properties to fossil fuels. For example, biopolymer producer Braskem has invested in developing the first bio-based polypropylene (PP) with a negative carbon footprint. Innovations in bioplastics will increase alternative options to traditional plastics and make sustainable products more readily available for plastics manufacturers.
The most evident advantages of bioplastics are a decreased dependence on fossil fuels and the potential to reduce waste by composting products at end of life. According to the OECD, plastics generated 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 — that number is expected to double by 2060. In comparison, Project Drawdown estimates that 1 metric ton of bioplastics produces 0.828 metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared to 2.4 metric tons for traditional plastics.
Furthermore, every piece of traditional plastic produced still exists in some form on our planet today. According to a 2022 OECD report, 73% of plastic waste is sent to landfills where it will accumulate and not break down. Another 4% is mismanaged or exists as uncollected litter in nature. When evaluating the sustainability of any product, it’s important to consider its ability to degrade or be recycled at end-of-life, opposed to ending up in a landfill. While not all bioplastic products are biodegradable, responsible product design will enable many biobased materials to break down, be recycled, or be repurposed and avoid additional plastic pollution.
The ultimate goal of bioplastics development is to create a sustainable plastics solution that maintains the durability and convenience of traditional plastic products. Bioplastics are a move in the right direction; however, some grades are not as robust as fossil-based polymers which require designers to carefully consider in-use performance requirements when evaluating these materials.
Researchers have also raised concerns about the impact of bioplastics production on land use and the environment. Bioplastics are commonly derived from corn and sugarcane. Farmers that cultivate crops to act as the feedstock, often release pesticides and fertilizer into the soil with detrimental environmental impacts. Growing bioplastic feedstock can also require farmers to divert land from food production. Researchers at One Earth estimate farmers will need more land than the country of France to produce enough feedstock to meet global plastic demand, which could strain the global food supply.
Another significant concern related to bioplastics is their affordability and infrastructure requirements. Currently, European Bioplastics estimates bioplastics are more expensive than traditional plastics due to research costs and their complex production processes. Bioplastic manufacturers are developing more economical production methods, but that doesn’t negate the need for proper recycling facilities and infrastructure changes throughout the supply chain to accommodate new materials. Companies looking to adopt bioplastics should consider investing in partnerships that support capturing the value of these new products across the entire supply chain. For example, TotalEnergies Corbion is developing a closed loop recycling model to chemically recycle polylactic acid (PLA) parts at end of life. The PLA producer is creating a worldwide network of partners to mitigate industry waste.
To combat other limitations, many bioplastics producers and certification bodies perform Life-Cycle Assessments (LCAs) on products to ensure their sustainability. Such assessments quantify characteristics like emissions, land use, energy demand and toxicity of products to determine the total environmental impact of a bioplastic over its life cycle. OEMs and consumers can use LCAs to make informed purchasing decisions about bioplastics.
Despite their limitations, the adoption of bioplastics is driven by high consumer demand for sustainable plastics, OEM sustainability targets and global legislation. It is furthered by technological advancements enabling manufacturers to use bioplastics in applications across major industries.
The automotive industry is using PLA-based upholstery, carpeting, vehicle hoods and other exterior components. The agriculture and food service industries use bioplastics to produce more sustainable single-use, disposable packaging. Recently, Danimer Scientific and TotalEnergies Corbion launched a compostable coffee pod biopolymer that is biodegradable at end of life and consistent with EU packaging regulations. Danimer estimates that over 550 million pounds of plastic are used to manufacture single-use coffee pods annually. If such an innovative product were widely adopted, the plastics supply chain could mitigate a significant amount of petrochemical plastic waste.
Legislation has also driven the adoption of bioplastics. A March 2023 report from the Biden administration set a target to replace 90% of today’s plastics and commercial polymers with bioplastics in the next 20 years. Many biomanufacturing companies have requested more federal investment to meet this lofty goal. If governments invest in bioplastic development, plastics companies could more easily scale adoption in their supply chain. In Europe, for example, the EU has adopted a policy framework to bring awareness to the sourcing, labeling and use of bioplastics. The policy is not legally binding but does educate consumers and companies about bioplastics in the EU, which currently possesses 26.5% of the world’s bioplastic production capability.
Bioplastics are a promising replacement for fossil fuel-based polymers. Still, more research and development, investment, and adoption are required for bioplastics to become a transformative solution. OEMs and plastics manufacturers looking to meet consumer demand for sustainable products should begin by evaluating which products are best suited to move from petroleum-based plastics to bioplastics.
M. Holland can help evaluate potential uses for bioplastics within your existing product line. Our team of Sustainability experts will work with your team from concept through testing and implementation as you evaluate bioplastics products such as TotalEnergies Corbion PLA, Danimer Scientific PHA, Braskem’s “I’m Green” PE, BioLogiQ’s BioBlend® starch masterbatches and GreenDot Bioplastics TPE. To learn more about M. Holland’s Sustainability offerings, visit our Sustainability market page