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Plastic makes our lives easier, and pollutes our planet at the same time: Do we need to change our lifestyles, or is there an alternative?

Marc-Henry de Jong United Biopolymers, S.A., Portugal

Plastic products are omnipresent in our society and will remain indispensable in the future. Plastic touches every aspect of our daily life, so much so that in 2014 alone we consumed a total of 246 million tonnes [1] . But it comes at a price – especially for the environment: 114 million tonnes end-up in landfill and a further 7.8 million tonnes pollute our oceans, every year [2]

The situation

Nearly everything we do involves plastics – whether it helps 

keep our food fresh, protects us from the environment as fibres in our clothing, keeps us warm as part of our homes’ insulation, or is an integral part of our different modes of transport. Plastic products are everywhere, and – undoubtedly – make our lives easier and more comfortable. But there are several problems associated with petroleum-based plastic (or also referred to as “conventional plastic”). 

 

Societal challenge 

On a global scale, the problem is most visible in form of large garbage patches floating in the world’s oceans, which consist mainly of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface. The Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean (also referred to as the “Pacific Trash Vortex”) is probably the largest one with size estimates ranging from 270,000 square miles (the size of Texas) to 5.8 million square miles (twice the size of the continental United States). Apart from the pollution reaching 46,000 plastic pieces found in every square mile of ocean, latest studies have shown that 100,000 marine animals get killed each year as a result of plastic bag pollution [3]. 

Though even more shocking, these pollutants “can accumulate in fish and other organisms, proceeding up the food chain on ingestion by other species. This can cause DNA damage in organisms that accumulate higher concentrations, which, in turn, can lead to cancer or physiological impairment. It can also cause cardiac problems, skeletal deformities and neurological deficiencies. Some of the compounds are classified as endocrine disrupters, meaning they affect hormone levels and systems in plants, animals and even people” [4]. 

Legislative intervention 

The EU has identified the negative environmental impact of plastics, mainly packaging. Despite major recycling efforts over the last years, a staggering 114 million tonnes – or 46.3% – of all plastics still end-up in landfill [6] and a further 7.8 million tonnes – or 3.2% – pollute our oceans [7]. The European Commission realised that change isn’t happening fast enough, and therefore intervened with both the “2020 Climate and energy package” in 2009 as well as its “Directive 94/62/EC on Packaging and Packaging Waste” as recently as in 2014. On a global scale, the recent United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Paris reignited the discussion about “black” versus “green” carbon emissions, an area where bioplastics can make a positive contribution.

The EU wants to make the use of raw materials more efficient, encourage recycling and create a more circular economy – hence minimising any environmental impact. And member states have started translating the EU’s directives into national laws: France is planning to follow Italy in banning all non-biodegradable shopping bags; Germany is introducing the requirement of a minimum renewable content of 55%; and Portugal is penalising the use of conventional shopping bags with a surcharge tax.

Similar interventions are currently underway in other parts of the world: Major cities in the USA and Asia have already banned plastics within their city limits, in 2015 Hawaii became the first US state with a state-wide ban on shopping bags made from conventional plastic, and California is expected to follow soon.

Market demand 

With 80% of European consumers wanting to buy products that have a minimal impact on the environment [8], this awakening of the consumers’ “green conscious” will also drive demand for bioplastics – especially in the area of packaging, which accounts for 38.2% of the global polyethylene market and is expected to account for 80.6% of the global bioplastics market by 2018 [9]. And with these legislative interventions above “forcing” a shift to biodegradable plastics, the higher costs, typically 2-10x more expensive than conventional plastics won’t be a barrier to entry [10].

Using the global polyethylene market as a reference, we’re talking about the world’s most important plastic market, which in 2014 accounted for ~85.9 million tonnes and is expected to grow with a CAGR of 5.3% over the next couple of years (mainly driven by growing economies in the Far East) and is expected to reach 117.1 million tonnes in 2020 and 151.6 million tonnes in 2025 [11]. In contrast, the global bioplastics market is still in its infancy with only ~1.7 million tonnes in 2014; yet it is expected grow with a CAGR of 42% to ~6.7 million tonnes in 2018 [12], effectively quadrupling over the next couple of years. 

The main market segments for bioplastics are flexible and rigid packaging, which will account for ~80 % the market in 2018. That’s why applications will focus on food and beverage packaging, catering products, shopping and refuse bags. It is expected that the total number of companies involved with bioplastics in one form or another will rise from ~500 in 2012 to >5,000 in 2020 [13].  

 

The solution 

Starch-based technologies offer a feasible solution to create a cheap, high quality, and reliable supply chain for bioplastics as:

Starch is already a polymer and doesn’t require major transformation compared to sugar-based technologies;

Starch is cheaply available across the globe;

Production costs are lower thanks to low [14] energy inputs; and

It could replace 90% of today’s polyethylene applications.

The good news is that thanks to bioplastics we can “enjoy plastics guiltfree”. Though it will still require a joint effort from consumers, brand owners, and most importantly legislators to make this transition to a “greener” economy a reality.