The term ‘bio-plastics’ appears fascinating as it seems to revolutionize what plastics have always stood for. Being derived from plants and having the ‘bio-‘ prefix in their name, these plastics are considered to offset the main underlying negatives of conventional plastics, thus seem like ideal products. However, there is more to bio-plastics than meets the eye, as they carry their own fair share of baggage.
We are surrounded by plastics all the time and everywhere – may it be at home, at work, or in transit. The use and abuse of products containing plastics has increased exponentially over the past few decades, fuelled by low oil prices and limited awareness about their ill-effects on the environment. But the tide is turning now, with bio-plastics entering the stage.
Still in their nascent stage of commercialization, bio-plastics are portrayed as able to revolutionize the plastics industry over the next couple of decades. Playing on the key drawbacks posed by traditional plastics, such as limited supply and rising prices of feedstock as well as environmental concerns, the currently insignificant bio-plastic share of about 1% of overall demand for plastics is expected to soar to about 25% over the next 15-20 years. Advanced technical properties, potential for cost reduction (owing to easily available feedstock), biodegradability options, and higher consumer acceptance, are some of the key factors that usher the market to higher growth rate, especially in products such as PET bottles and disposable cutlery used by foodservice industry. While the market stands to grow at about 20% a year, there are also several factors that conspire to withhold the potential of the market.
First and foremost, bio-plastics cannot replace conventional plastics in all applications, and at this stage of development and commercialization are also known to generally offer poorer quality. While they are suitable for disposable products, they cannot yet replace traditional plastics where stability of material properties and durability over time is necessary, therefore, discouraging traditional plastics’ substitution on a mass scale.
At the bio-plastics production end, large land requirement for bio-feedstock (corn, sugarcane, etc.), which leads to conversion of forests into agricultural lands and increases the use of fertilizers and pesticides, may just negate the ecological benefits of bio-plastics to a certain extent.
At the consumption side, the key challenge is the lack of dedicated end-of-life facilities for bio-plastics. There is limited infrastructure for industrial composting and incineration worldwide, which largely limits the benefits reaped from the biodegradable property of these plastics. Moreover, bio-plastics are not uniform and vary greatly, thereby require different end-of-life infrastructure (including segregation, disposal, composting, and incineration). This makes it a much more complicated and expensive process. The recyclability of bio-based plastics is also limited and relatively more expensive. Furthermore, the mixing of conventional plastics and bio-plastics in the recycling stream results in poorer quality of the resultant recycled plastic.
Lastly, the traditional plastics market is much more developed. Bio-plastics on the other hand, are still in the pilot production stage and generally lack economies of scale, thereby costing much more than synthetic plastics. Instead of substituting incumbent plastics, the bio-based plastics market currently caters to a niche audience, which is highly environmentally-conscious and is willing to pay a premium for such products.
Follow the Leaders
Despite the mixed opinions on bio-plastics, several small- and large-scale bio-plastic adoption programs are increasingly undertaken by leading consumer goods producers. It can be expected that these programs and investments will eventually lead to economies of scale for bio-plastics, but as of now it seems that these players have been jumping into the bio-plastics arena mainly for marketing and PR-building purposes, as the group environmentally-conscious consumers expands globally. Here are some examples of investments and innovations by leaders in bio-plastics adoption-
|Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, H.J Heinz, Nike, and Procter & Gamble
|Panasonic Corporation Eco Solutions Company
Notwithstanding the many benefits of using bio-plastics, they are not the perfect eco-friendly products the world would want them to be – at least at the current level of development and commercialization. While the benefits reaped from them at this point are marginal, companies are marketing these new plastics as the revolutionary heroes that will save our environment. However, with a strong momentum towards innovation to improve product quality, huge investments by leading players, drive towards commercialization, and a host of government initiatives, it seems too early to judge the industry as of yet.