A sustainable solution our plastic needs

A sustainable solution to our plastic needs

4:54 AM, 18th January 2018
Bioplastics are the family of plastics derived from renewable feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane and cellulose. © icis.com
Bioplastics are the family of plastics derived from renewable feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane and cellulose. © icis.com

A polythene bag for grocery, a disposable coffee cup, a discarded broken toy- there are so many plastic items that we discard every day which ends up in the landfills, polluting and degrading our planet bit by bit. If only these things were made of bio-based plastics, imagine the difference that we can make to the world.

By Debarati Das 

Despite rising environmental concerns and an even bigger concern over the amount of plastic waste chocking the ecology posing a serious threat to the biodiversity of the planet, plastics form an integral part of each of our lives. At any point of time, knowingly or unknowingly, we have at least one item made of plastic on us. This only proves, that despite not being very environment friendly, plastic as a material, has an invincible role to meet our daily requirements.

Nonetheless, the world is becoming more aware of the grave consequences that lies ahead. And hence, international brands are doubling their efforts to keep their carbon counts low and are switching to better, safer materials for their products; customers are making a conscious decision of choosing an ecologically safe material over plastic, and people are making individual efforts of minimizing the use of plastics in their daily lives.

So, although the need for the qualities of this material will never diminish, it is time that plastic evolves and transforms into a more biodegradable and environment friendly alternative. Various companies are working on different types of materials that can replace plastics. And among all the materials, bioplastics is carving a niche of its own.

Bioplastics are the family of plastics derived from renewable feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane and cellulose. These biobased plastics are eco-friendly in numerous ways- they are produced from renewable feedstocks, there is no dependence on fossil fuel and they have the potential to reduce carbon footprint, therefore, reduce global warming.

“The shocking amount of landfill waste shows the urgent need for big brands to accelerate work in new, sustainable materials such as bioplastics. Bioplastics can now perform almost exactly like petroleum-based plastics under mechanical stress and at boiling temperatures,” said Paul Mines, CEO, Biome Bioplastics.

Biodegradable bioplastics degrade completely through biological actions, into biomass, carbon dioxide or methane, and water. All this is reinforcing the plastics industry’s effort to create a sustainable material and although it is yet to reach its full potential, several brands, companies and industries have begun making bioplastics as their material of choice.

“Making the change to bio-based sources is a multi-step journey. It is not a one-step process, nor an easy one at that because ready-made solutions just don’t exist. Solutions need to start from scratch,” said Erin Simon, deputy director of packaging and material science at World Wildlife Fund. 

Not just its eco-friendly nature, but easy availability of feedstocks and favourable government policies are also the reasons why manufacturers are eager to shift to bio-based plastics. This popularity of bio-based plastics is also leading to new trends in the end-user industries. Bioplastics are now being used in numerous industries such as rigid packaging, flexible packaging, textiles, consumer goods, agriculture, construction, electrical & electronics among others.

According to Research and Markets report, the global bioplastics market size is expected to grow at a CAGR between 28% and 28.5% between 2017 and 2023. Packaging is one of the major sectors to experiment with biodegradable plastics since packaging is needed in enormous quantity but for the shortest period, resulting in the accumulation of huge amount of waste. The use of bioplastics in the packaging industry is changing the dynamics of the industry by drastically decreasing and/or recycling the accumulated waste. Currently, even though, bioplastics for packaging markets represent a small share of the global plastic packaging market value, it has a high growth potential in the future. According to a new research from Smithers Pira, the global bioplastics for packaging industry alone is forecast to grow from 2017–2022 at an annual average rate of 17% to a market value of almost $7.2 billion.

Bottles manufacturing also accounts for a large share in this industry and is expected to grow manifolds by 2020. In 2015, Coca-Cola was the first company to use the world’s first PET plastic bottle made entirely from plant materials. Their PlantBottle™ packaging used groundbreaking technology to create a fully recyclable plastic bottle made from renewable plant materials and made plant-based packaging alternative a reality. Following the suit, many companies are now reaching out to bioplastics to reduce the enormous number of plastic bottles piling up in landfills.

Food service disposables is another category which is fast picking up pace. Several countries have begun to ban single-use food service ware made of conventional plastics to be replaced with material which are not just compostable, but home compostable. This is opening a huge opportunity for new research and development for compostable plastics.

Several innovations happening across the globe is opening up new opportunities for bioplastics. Eastman Chemical Company, a leading producer of cellulosic materials, recently introduced Eastman TREVA™, a breakthrough in engineering bioplastics with a superior combination of sustainability and safety benefits, end-use performance improvements, and design and brand flexibility. The bioplastic material can be used in numerous applications like eyeglass frames, wearable electronics, headphones, and many other personal devices that come in direct contact with the skin; electronics, housings, intricate cosmetics cases, and other products which require high design and complex specifications; and automotive interior components which need chemical resistance along will providing aesthetics. “Eastman leveraged nearly 100 years of cellulosic expertise in the design and testing of TREVA™ to meet the improved sustainability profile and performance needs of brands, fabricators, moulders, and other companies across the value chain,” said Burt Capel, vice president and general manager of Eastman’s Specialty Plastics business unit.

Another company, Biome Bioplastics, is working towards dramatically cutting down on the wastage of coffee cups with its takeaway beverage cups made from plant-based sources including plant starches and tree by-products such as cellulose. According to the company, this is the first time that such bioplastic materials for disposable cups and lids have been made that are fully compostable and recyclable. “For such a simple product, disposing of a single coffee cup is a very complex problem. Most cups are lined with oil-based plastic and the lids made of polystyrene making recycling impossible, even when placed in the right bin. When 2.5 billion takeaway cups are thrown away each year, and less than one percent are recycled, each cup adds up,” said Mines. “Our solution is making biopolymers that can be made into fully biodegradable coffee cup and lid combinations. The result being a bio-based takeaway cup disposable either in a paper recycling stream or food waste stream. In appropriate composting conditions our cups and lids will disappear to carbon dioxide and water within three months,” he added.

Stringent government rules imposed in many countries have already seen a sharp switch to bioplastics. But reports suggest that by 2020, Asia Pacific region will be the largest consumer of bioplastics globally followed by North America and Europe.  Eco-friendly initiatives by corporates and abundant availability of raw materials for manufacturing bioplastics are prominent factors driving growth in Asia Pacific bioplastics market. However, high cost of production is one of the major factors that is hampering the industry growth. But the good news is that more and more companies are taking up their share of responsibility towards maintaining sustainability.

While the potential for bioplastic market is huge, the actual usage of these materials will largely depend on whether manufacturers can grow their production capabilities fast enough to meet the demand providing them at an acceptable cost and performance levels as per various industry standards. Several researches across the globe are working make bioplastics a reality by deriving it from new sources of feedstocks including bagasse, wood chips, straw, switch grass, etc and thereby finding new ways of addressing the challenges associated with bioplastics.

© Chemical Today Magazine

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