Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

New Research Shows Bioplastics Growing Fast in Packaging and Beyond

The first sentence of the Freedonia Group’s (Cleveland, OH) description of its recently released study “World Bioplastics to 2015” says what biomaterials professionals already know: “Global demand for biodegradable and bio-based plastics will more than triple through 2015.” That would mean over a million metric tons of material valued at $2.9 billion.

The biomaterials pros also know, contrary to what consumers and environmentalists might think, that the main bioplastics growth engine will not be biodegradables, even though they commanded 90% of 2010 global bioplastics sales. Biodegradable plastics will continue to grow, substantially in fact, but according to Freedonia the main growth driver for bioplastics will be bio-based polyethylene (PE).

Freedonia forecasts that demand for both the starch-based resins and polylactic acid (PLA) will more than double through 2015, with PLA showing faster growth due to technical advances and lower cost than other bioplastics. Rapid gains are also foreseen for the polyhydroxy-alkanoate (PHA) resins currently entering the commercial market.

The greater gains in the non-biodegradable bioplastics, says Freedonia, will be kindled by the commercial quantities of bio-PE coming from the 200,000 metric-ton-per-year plant that Braskem opened in Brazil late in 2010.

And around 2015 two other production plants for bio-based PE will open, as well as sites for bio-based polypropylene (PP) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride). The forecast also includes industrial-scale production of fully bio-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate) before the decade is out.

Regional changes are also predicted. Due to rapid consumer acceptance by its consumers, Western Europe consumed the most bioplastics in 2010, with starch-based resins for biodegradable bags leading the way. North America also was a major market in 2010, where PLA was most in demand. Freedonia forecasts that the fastest gains in bioplastics through 2015 will be in the Asia/Pacific region, with strong growth in Japan and China.

Sugarcane in Brazil

Sugarcane, the feedstock for Brazil’s strong ethanol industry, is taking the country to world leadership in bioplastic production.

Regional production of bioplastics, currently dominated by the U.S. and Western Europe, will change dramatically by 2015, says Freedonia, as the ramping up of bio-polyethylene in a Brazil blessed with abundant sugar cane feedstock makes that country the leader in worldwide bioplastics production. Thailand and China will inaugurate over 100,000 metric tons of new bioplastics capacity by 2020, also becoming major players on the world stage.

Bioplastics Future Bright in North America

Speaking at the Bioplastics Symposium in Denver, CO on September 27, 2011, Edwin Tam, manager of new strategic initiatives at bioplastics producer Teknor Apex and member of the Bioplastics Council, a special interest group within SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, gave an overview of the bioplastics business in the U.S. and North America.

Bioplastics, Tam said, will continue to grow in currently active sectors such as food service, packaging, agriculture, and consumer products, and will expand in the automotive, medical, and consumer electronics markets. Being less than one percent of total plastics usage now, there is much room for expansion, which will be supported by new biopolymers, bioplastic compounds, and bio-based plasticizers and additives, all abetted by development of bio-based feedstocks.

The bioplastics outlook is also brightened by continuing consumer and OEM demand, and the adoption of biomaterials by major brand owners such as Coca-Cola, Frito-Lay, and many more.

Tam also spelled out some challenges to wider use of biopolymers, for example that the price is still higher than traditional plastics and consumers think they should neither pay more for “green” products and packaging nor have to compromise on functionality. There is confusion regarding bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable materials, including the terminology itself, and work to be done on infrastructure for collection, recycling, and industrial composting.

Tam is optimistic that the challenges will be overcome and that the projected growth will be achieved. The Bioplastics Council, which is chaired by Melissa Hockstad, SPI’s VP for science, technology, and regulatory affairs, is dedicated to educating the plastics industry, government, and the full value chain on all things bioplastic. It continues to build the relationships with federal government agencies Having recently added several new member companies, the Council is articulating clear, consistent description of the various bioplastics options, and providing strategic advice to all concerned parties so as to harmonize bioplastic-related environmental policies.

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