A growing number of major brands are turning to bio-based plastics in their efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of their products and to meet the increasing consumer demand for more sustainable products. Yet, concerns and misunderstandings about the sustainability of these materials and the best choice of bio-based feedstocks still exist. We spoke to Hasso von Pogrell, Managing Director at European Bioplastics, the association of the bioplastics industry in Europe and member of RSB, to share some insights about the benefits and development of these innovative materials.
How is the market for bioplastics developing?
Over the past ten years, the bioplastics industry has flourished and developed into a fast-growing innovative sector, which is driven by a growing consumer demand for more sustainable products and an overall change in awareness about the environmental impacts of consumption choices. The bioplastics industry is able to meet the increased demand as a result of substantial investments in research and development of bio-based products designed with a circular economy in mind. The global bioplastics production capacities are set to increase from around 2 million tonnes in 2017 to approximately 2.5 million tonnes in 2022.
What are the main drivers and challenges of this growth?
The European Commission’s commitment to the transition from a linear to a circular economy model in Europe has certainly accelerated the momentum of growth of the bioplastics industry in Europe. Bioplastics will play a key role in this transition by replacing fossil with renewable resources and by increasing recycling targets and waste management efficiency. We work hard for those benefits to be acknowledged in the upcoming legislative decisions.
Market push and pull measures will be crucial to drive this transition, which needs to be encouraged by concrete legislative action such as for example requirements for a minimum bio-based and recycled content in plastic product designs, or carbon pricing mechanisms to include the external costs of climate change in the prices for products. This approach will need to be underpinned by smart sustainability criteria in order to ensure responsible sourcing.
As members of RSB, we really value the opportunity to engage, learn from and collaborate that is provided by their platform. Our work is part of the broader development of the bioeconomy and through our membership of RSB we can share and develop together with other sectors and organisations
What benefits do bio-based bioplastics bring for producers and brands in terms of sustainability?
More and more companies are looking for innovative ways to meet the demand for sustainable plastic products without compromising on the quality and profitability of their products. Bio-based plastics offer the same functionalities and technical properties as conventional plastic packaging, but, additionally, have the unique ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our dependency on fossil resources. At the same time, the bioplastics industry has invested heavily in the development of new, innovative materials with improved properties and higher functionality. This allows companies to not only improve their products and resource efficiency but also their environmental footprint.
What is the preferred choice of feedstock for bio-based bioplastics?
Today, bioplastics are predominantly produced from agro-based feedstock, i.e. plants that are rich in carbohydrates, such as corn or sugarcane, since they are the most land-efficient crops due to highly efficient agricultural processes. Yet, some companies interested in switching to bioplastics facing concerns about the use of plant-based feedstocks and especially food crops for the production of bioplastics. But these concerns are unfounded. The use of bio-based feedstocks for the production of bioplastics is in no competition to the production of food or feed. The land needed to grow the feedstock for today’s bioplastics production is around 0.02 percent of the global agricultural area and will not increase much further, despite the predicted growth of production capacities for bioplastics, due to the development and improvement of sustainable agricultural practices for higher yields.
At the same time, the bioplastics industry is investing strongly in the research and development to use ligno-cellulosic feedstock or biogenic waste feedstocks for the production of bio-based plastics, which is an important development to help the transition to a circular economy. For example, IKEA and Neste just announced their partnership to develop bio-based plastic materials derived from renewable or recycled waste and residue raw materials, such as used cooking oil, as well as sustainably-produced vegetable oils.
What are the major trends in the industry?
I have no doubt that the industry will continue to grow driven by the increasing demand for sustainable products as well as the continuous advancements and innovations in new materials and applications for bioplastics. One major trend is a greater diversification of feedstocks used for the production of bioplastics. There are already quite a few companies working with second and third generations of renewable feedstock. NatureWorks, for example, recently opened a research lab to develop and commercialise a fermentation process for transforming the greenhouse gas methane into lactic acid, the building block for PLA, one of the fastest growing bioplastics materials. The sky is the limit.
Hasso von Pogrell will speak at RSB’s Annual Meeting on 6-7 December 2018 in Berlin, Germany. To further strengthen the synergies between RSB’s certification for bio-based materials and the bioplastics industry, this year’s meeting will be held alongside the 13th European Bioplastics Conference, the leading business and networking event for the bioplastics industry – which will take place on 4-5 December in Berlin. More information can be found on: https://www.european-bioplastics.org/events/eubp-conference
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