The Promising Potential of Bio-based Plastics (part 2)

As promised in my previous article I continue my review of the study “Product overviews and market projection of emerging bio-based plastics”, carried out by scientists of the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation at the University of Utrecht/the Netherlands.

One of the main drivers to develop bio-based plastics is the goal to provide the market with biodegradable plastics, in order to solve the problem of rapidly increasing amounts of waste and limited landfill capacities. Although in some densely populated industrialized countries with limited landfill capacity, waste is nowadays primarily disposed off in municipal solid waste incineration (MSWI) plants, plastic waste management remains an issue in rural areas and in developing or emerging countries. Plastics are also increasingly polluting nature and particularly the sea, with the most prominent example being the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the central North Pacific Ocean, covering 700 000 km2, and some even say 15 million km2 of large-scale marine pollution.

Bio-degradable plastics can be manufactured not only from bio-based feedstock but also from petrochemical raw materials. But bio-based plastics, defined here as plastics that are fully or partially produced from renewable raw materials, are playing a more important role in the domain of bio-degradable plastics. Therefore bio-based plastics will be able to substantially reduce the chemical industry’s environmental footprint, but only if bio-based plastics manage to conquer a meaningful share of standard plastics.

Despite the many company press releases and the hype in the blogosphere, it should be clear that bio-based plastics still are in their infancy. There are success stories and very promising
developments, accompanied by failures and serious problems to be solved.

If ultimately successful, the reconstruction of the chemical industry using bio-based feedstocks (that means including bio-fuels) will have a major impact and can be seen as the Third Industrial Revolution.

After the successful introduction by small innovative companies the sector has now entered the second phase of business start-ups in bio-based plastics. Larger petrochemical firms still have the opportunity to rapidly gain and convert know-how by smart acquisitions. If done successfully, frontrunners can gain a competitive advantage that can last for decades. This window of opportunity may not be open for long. Laggards may still prosper in the medium term and even in the long term if they can ensure direct access to cheap fossil resources, especially oil and gas, otherwise they are likely to loose out and to disappear in the second half of this century or even before. This could even happen to the oil and chemical multinationals unless they adapt to the altered circumstances.

There are three principal ways to produce bio-based plastics, i.e.
1. to make use of natural polymers which may be modified but remain intact to a large extent (e.g. starch plastics);
2. to produce bio-based monomers by fermentation or conventional chemistry (e.g. C1 chemistry) and to polymerize these monomers in a second step (e.g. polylactic acid);
3. to produce bio-based polymers directly in micro-organisms or in genetically modified crops.
The study shows that the first way is by far the most important, followed by the second; the writers of the study state that they are not aware of any meaningful quantities being produced according to the third pathway.

Based on recent company announcements the production capacity of bio-based plastics is projected to increase from 360,000 tons in 2007 to about 2.3 million tons by 2013 and to 3.45 Mt in 2020. This is equivalent to average annual growth rates of 37% between 2007 and 2013 and 6% between 2013 and 2020. In 2007, the most important products in terms of production volumes were starch plastics (0.15 Mt) and PLA (0.15 Mt). Based on the company announcements it is projected that the most important representatives by 2020 will be starch plastics (1.3 Mt), PLA (0.8 Mt), bio-based PE (0.6 Mt) and PHA (0.4 Mt).
For starch plastics and PLA, cost reductions and the demand related to the production of bulk applications ensure a steady and fast growth. For bio-based PE, the production cost will be the key factor for the future expansion. The growth of bio-based epoxy resin is mainly determined by the availability of bio-based glycerol and by the production costs.

All in all, these developments have converted bio-based plastics from a small niche into a broadly supported development. Being at the beginning, the very substantial growth of bio-based plastics does not yet translate into large quantities if compared to petrochemical plastics. Even by 2020, the European production of bio-based plastics is projected not to exceed 2 kg per capita, while petrochemical plastics may amount to 166 kg per capita (the current values are 0.27 and 103 kg per capita respectively).
This is disappointing in terms of avoided environmental impacts in the short to medium term but on the other hand it brings about two major advantages: First, the land use required for bio-based plastics will be limited, not exceeding 1,000,000 hectares (see note at the end of the article) of land in 2020 (this is less than 0.3% of the arable land in Europe). As a consequence no interference with the food supply needs to be feared for the short to medium term, as-far-as bio-based plastics are concerned. The arable land needed for bio-fuels is a completely different story. Read also my next post (coming up in a few days) regarding alternatives.

Bio-resources are used for food, animal feed, bio-fuels (bio-ethanol) and for wood and other construction materials next to plastics and chemicals. And here we come, there is not enough sustainably produced biomass available to cover all these needs of the increasingly wealthy world population. Wise decisions need to be made which consider the environment. Key decision criteria are first the net environmental gains per hectare of land use and second the existence of other promising means of satisfying a given need. The use of bio-resources for food production comes undoubtedly first and must not be compromised by any means. The study stipulates that bio-based plastics should be preferred over bio-fuels because in the first place bio-based plastics have a higher product value than bio-fuels (e.g. ethanol) and in the second place, promising mobility concepts based on renewable power (electricity) do exist and will become more and more viable and attractive in future, while the carbon embodied in bio-based plastics (and organic chemicals) cannot be replaced by anything else; here, biomass is the only long-term sustainable option. Bio-based plastics do not always score better than power and heat generated from biomass but, again, the issue of viable alternatives speaks for bio-based plastics.

Furthermore it will take more than two decades until meaningful benefits such as CO2 emission reduction will be achieved at a macro level. On the other hand, the advantages of the slow substitution of petrochemical plastics are that technological lock-in can be more easily avoided and that an optimized portfolio of processes can be implemented ensuring maximum environmental benefits at lowest possible costs and minimum social backlash.

To conclude, it has become increasingly clear that a very broad range of plastics can be produced fully or partially from biomass and that these plastics can be tailored to be fully or partially bio-degradable. There is hence no doubt anymore that new bio-based plastics can be successfully commercialized. As a consequence, the focus of attention has shifted and the types of concern have gradually changed over time. Since analogies are seen with bio-fuel production, which is clearly ahead of bio-based plastics in terms of the quantities produced, the main issues are the distortion of food markets, the land use requirements (for food versus feed versus materials, including bio-based plastics), impacts on biodiversity and other environmental impacts (including the question whether bio-based polymers have a favourable overall footprint or not).

Note: in the study it is erroneously said to be 1,000 hectares (page 195)), representing less than 0.0003% of the arable land in Europe or 0.00006% world-wide. These figures should be read as I stated in this article, being 1,000,000; 0.3 and 0.06 respectively.

If you want to read the full study download (pdf-file) it here.

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7 responses to “The Promising Potential of Bio-based Plastics (part 2)

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  2. The driver of waste reduction as a stimulus for bio-based plastic is just plain wrong and a terrible idea. The thinking behind it is superficial and essentially based on an acceptance of the notion that making garbage is fundamental and acceptable and that resources are of little value.

    The primary waste inherent in discard of any product, including any kind of plastic bottle, has very little to do with filling up a dump. Plastic will sit there for millenia causing no one any particular harm. The serious harm is in the loss of resources that are expended to create that high level function in a package which is then discarded so cavalierly. The resources are NOT only the petroleum or starch of which the bottle is made. The resources are all the human labor, the capital, the factories, the transportation, the energy and the accompanying losses of clean soil, water, air and biodiversity that are lost as the many people involved in making a bottle live their lives and do their work. This is the real environmental cost of a bottle. And this is no better, or no less, for a biodegradable bottle than for a petroleum based bottle. The key is in the reuse of the intact and well-made bottle, not in its insignificant composting. Refill that bottle many times, and you will save all of the resource loss each time it is filled. Discard it and they are all lost.

    See http://www.zerowasteinstitute.org for more.

    • Read the article carefully, before you comment with a non-realistic rant. Whether you like it or not, we face the actual situation and from there on we can develop.

  3. Anton:
    Your comment leaves me non-plussed. The conventional view is that garbage creation is normal but let’s tone it down a bit because storing waste is the main environmental problem. This is a delusion, not a reality. I explained to you what the true loss is when a component, such as a bottle, is discarded. This is the reality. You may not like a truth that conflicts with the conventional biases but the truth will out. You do not change the truth by using the word “rant”. One man’s rant is another man’s trenchant analysis. The garbage viewpoint is archaic in that we have the ability – and it isn’t even hard – to almost entirely eliminate most garbage by reusing FUNCTION. It is important to reuse the function, not the materials (as the recyclers do) because it is the function in which the greatest portion of value resides. The materials, in most cases, are insignificant by comparison. And this is true for every container (unless it is made of gold).
    There is a definition of reality that depends on how the money and politics are working together to create profits for elites, and scientific or physical reality be damned. I choose to emphasize scientific reality and on that basis you might justifiably call my view politically unrealistic.
    I say it isn’t hard to reuse function, and I back that up on my website by providing a large number of redesigns of functions for common or important products. I also started, and ran successfully, the only company in the world for the reuse of all chemicals in excess. We found new homes for hundreds of commercial excesses and thousands of lab chemicals. This is a solid record of backing up my insights with accomplishments. The rest of the country, by merely regulating disposal, is encouraging excess chemicals to be used to pollute rivers, the ocean and the underground. Is it really so hard to understand that it is a superior approach to design products and systems so that products, chemicals in this case including polymers, are all reused at high functional levels instead?
    Paul Palmer

    • Thanks for your answer. I still stay by my comment: Read the article carefully, and you will see that the reuse function is one of the topics of virtual design, as it is for bio-based plastics.
      BTW, there was no need to use your title, I don’t spray my titles around also. They aren’t a guarantee for knowledge and wisdom.

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