Bioplastics, where is the market heading?
The urgency that society is placing on our industry to move towards more sustainable solutions has driven the development of a particular type of materials, called bioplastics. In this type of materials, we seek to migrate towards renewable sources, we seek biodegradability, or both. We have been working to develop materials that reduce our dependence on petroleum, but that can also be composted or biodegraded, in order to close the cycle.
Bioplastics, by definition, are materials that can be based on renewable or non-renewable sources, and may or may not be biodegradable. It is possible, for example, to have bio-based materials, such as bio-PE, that are not biodegradable. It is also possible to have materials based on non-renewable sources, such as BASF's Ecovio grade, which is, however, compostable. And it is also possible to have materials such as PLA, which is bio-based and biodegradable.
However, the eagerness of consumers to migrate to more sustainable solutions and the inappropriate use by some suppliers of bioplastics have led our society to believe that the materials are going to be a "silver bullet" against pollution. And this is a mistake. Bioplastics are certainly a valuable material in the circular economy, but they are not the solution to pollution problems. And it is wrong to make customers think that, by making packaging from bioplastics, we will automatically solve pollution problems.
Bioplastics have their niche market, they offer some benefits, and under proper composting conditions they can biodegrade. However, it is wrong to fall into "I am corn and not plastic" statements, as we see in some commercials. These materials are still plastics and their degradation, which may or may not occur, depends on very specific conditions and their end-of-life destination.
The correct use of this type of materials depends on having adequate access to information, avoiding "greenwashing" and achieving adequate regulation, as well as having systems for end-of-life use (such as industrial composting units) that guarantee the promise that these materials will be reintegrated into nature.
Current status and prospectsCurrently, bioplastics still account for less than 1% of the more than 367 million tons of plastics produced annually. However, unlike plastics from non-renewable sources, the demand for and production of bioplastics continues to grow. This growth is driven by an increase in demand, combined with the evolution of increasingly sophisticated applications and products.
According to market data compiled by EuropeanBioplastics in cooperation with the nova-Institute, global bioplastics production capacity will increase from 2.42 million tons in 2021 to around 7.59 million tons in 2026. In this scenario, the 2% mark would be exceeded for the first time. PBAT, PBS and bio-based polyamides are the materials responsible for this spectacular growth.
Currently, biodegradable plastics as a whole, including PLA, PHA, starch blends and others, account for more than 64% (over 1.5 million tons) of global bioplastics production capacity. Production of biodegradable plastics is expected to increase to almost 5.3 million by 2026 due to strong development of polymers, such as PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) and PBS (polybutylene succinate), but also steady growth of polylactic acids (PLA).
Non-biodegradable bio-based plastics together account for about 36% (more than 865,000 tons) of the global bioplastics production capacity. These also include drop-in solutions such as bio-based PE (polyethylene) and bio-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate), as well as bio-based PA (polyamides). Their relative share is expected to decline further to just over 30 percent by 2026. However, in absolute numbers, bio-based polymer production capacities will continue to increase over the next five years to around 2.3 million tons.
While bio-based PET production capacities continue to decline, the focus has shifted to the development of PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a new polymer that is expected to enter the market in 2023. PEF is comparable to PET but 100% bio-based. And it is said to exhibit superior thermal and barrier properties, making it an ideal material for beverage, food and non-food packaging.
Applications and regional productionBioplastics are used in an increasing number of markets, from packaging, "catering" products, consumer electronics, automotive, agriculture/horticulture and toys to textiles and several other segments. Packaging remains the largest market segment for bioplastics with 48% (1.15 million tons) of the total bioplastics market in 2021. However, the application portfolio continues to diversify. Segments, such as automotive and transportation or building and construction, are still on the rise with growing capacities for functional polymers.