Bioplastics – an important part of the bioeconomy
The European bioeconomy aims to activate the potential of biobased products and generate new markets and industries while enhancing the sustainability of production and consumption.
Bioplastics are an important part of the bioeconomy and will shape the future of the plastics sector. Bioplastics today still represent well under one percent of the approx. 300 million tonnes of plastics produced annually. In 2013, the global production capacity amounted to around 1.6 million tonnes. But demand is rising, with more and more sophisticated bioplastic materials and products entering the market. Large brand owners have introduced bioplastic packaging or biobased car elements for prominent brands. By 2018, the production capacity is expected to multiply to 6.7 million tonnes.
Reducing the dependency on fossil resources
Crude oil or gas, on which the manufacture of conventional plastic is based, are limited resources predicted to decline over the next few decades, becoming significantly more expensive in the process. An early switch to renewable sources is important to the plastics industry. Even though only four percent of the global oil consumption is used to produce plastics, and a further four percent is used to generate the energy for plastics production, sufficient time is needed to develop the new technologies required to process renewable sources in preparation
for the ‘post-oil era’.
Annual grow back: Renewability is key
Unlike conventional plastics, biobased plastics are derived from renewable resources. These resources are predominantly annual crops such as corn, cereals and sugar beets or perennial cultures such as cassava and sugar cane. The global bioplastics industry is growing dynamically.
Reducing GHG emissions
Powered by sunlight, plants absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG), and transform it into biomass. This biomass becomes the starting point for the production of biobased plastics. Using renewable resources constitutes a temporary removal of greenhouse gasses (basically CO2) from the atmosphere. This carbon fixation (‘carbon sink’) can be extended for a period of time if the material is recycled. In particular, recycling into durable products provides added value in this respect.
Increasing resource efficiency through cascade use
The prerequisite for sustainable existence at a high social and economic level is the decoupling of our society from the excessive consumption of resources. The sparing use of resources and an increase of resource efficiency are key concepts in this context.
Made from (annually) regrowing feedstock and offering the potential ‘to close the loop’, biobased plastics pay into exactly these key-paradigms of a modern bioeconomy. Their potential to increase resource efficiency can be best realised by establishing use cascades: Meaning that renewable resources are firstly used for material/product creation and afterwards to produce energy. Ideally, a product is biobased, recycled, and then the energy is recovered at the end of the product life cycle. In this way bioplastics enable intelligent use of resources and ensure a high added value in a low carbon economy.
Creating renewable energy
Energy recovery of biobased packaging at the end-of-life (when recycling is no longer possible) can secure a net benefit for the environment. Biobased rigid packaging contains valuable energy that can be recovered in combined heat/power plants. The renewable share of the material releases the same amount of carbon dioxide as the plants had originally taken out of the atmosphere during growth.
Support of the rural economy in Europe
As a growing industrial sector, bioplastic production will provide future European employment growth.. The bioplastics industry offers a potential for rural development, in particular by helping to improve the economic situation in agricultural areas that might otherwise decline. Biobased plastic products act as a carbon sink.Only biobased materials can ‘close the loop’ and enable a truly circular economy.
Biobased plastics – Fostering a resource efficient circular economy
Which feedstock types are used / will be used in the future? Today, bioplastics are mostly made of carbon hydrate rich plants such as corn or sugar cane, so called food crops or first generation feedstock. First generation feedstock is currently the most efficient feedstock for the production of bioplastics, as it requires the least amount of land to grow and produces the highest yields.
In order to fulfill its growth potential, it is important that the bioplastics industry is ensured access to first generation biomass now and in the future. The bioplastics industry is of course also researching the use of non-food crops (second and third generation feedstock), such as cellulose, with a view to its further use. Innovative technologies are focussing on non-edible by-products as the source for bioplastics: the production of food crops inevitably generates large amounts of cellulosic by-products such as straw, corn stover or bagasse which are usually left on the field where they biodegrade at a quantity far higher than necessary to restore the soil carbon pool. At best they are used to produce the energy for the conversion process to feedstock. This leaves significant potential for using biotechnological processes to create platform chemicals for industrial purposes – amongst them the production of bioplastics.
First generation feedstock bioplastics represent an enabling technology that will facilitate the transition to later generations of feedstock. The use of first generation feedstock for industrial applications should therefore not be viewed in a negative light.
Sustainable sourcing of feedstock is key
The sustainable sourcing of feedstock is a prerequisite for more sustainable products. Negative impacts like deforestation of protected areas and environmental damage caused by bad agricultural practice must be avoided. The same applies to social criteria and human rights. The implementation of good agricultural practice, including guidelines for social standards (health protection, etc.), is part of the sourcing strategy of many companies, e.g. by implementing a suppliers’ code of conduct.
There are several stakeholder initiatives committed to achieving sustainability goals for special products, such as the Better Sugar Cane Initiative. The independent certification of sustainability criteria is another approach to help follow the guidelines set by the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED). Corresponding certification schemes have been established in several European countries (e.g. ISCC). The choice of a biomass type for industrial use should only depend on the sustainability and efficiency of the feedstock. Certification is an appropriate tool to ensure the sustainable sourcing of biomass
See publications from the nova-institute (2013): “Food or non-food: Which agricultural feedstocks are best for industrial uses?“; See also calculations from EUBP, IfBB – the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites University of Applied Sciences and Arts and nova-Institute, 2014: http://en.european-bioplastics.org/environment/sustainable-sourcing/land-use/.
This position is further backed up by a study published by the World Bank in 2013, according to which an increase in food prices is largely influenced by the oil price. Biofuels and, by extension, bioplastics play a negligible role here.
Land use for food, feed and bioplastic production
The discussion about the use of biomass for industrial purposes is often linked to the question about whether the conversion of potential food and feed into materials is ethically justifiable. This emotional debate lacks supporting facts. Enough food to feed the world is produced, but unfortunately roughly one third of it is wasted each year. Growing food, feed and pasture use account for about 97 percent of the global agricultural area. Biomass grown for material use, however, only accounts for approximately 2 percent and with about 0.01 percent, and this being attributed to bioplastics. The sheer difference in volume shows that there is no competition between biomass use for food and feed, and for material use.
Biobased plastics show impressive growth figures and have proven benefits compared to fossil-sourced materials. In order to ensure that the European market can best exploit biobased plastics’ potential, a level playing field for all biobased industries that use biomass is required in Europe. This will ultimately ensure the highest value creation and the strongest environmental benefits. No competition between biomass use for food,
feed, and for material use. Less than 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area is needed to grow feedstock for bioplastics.
1Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity – new FAO report 2013 http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196220/icode/
2Market data by European Bioplastics / Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Hannover, Germany), and nova-Institute, 2014. For more information on food security see the Economist Intelligence Unit’s assessment tool: http://foodsecurityindex.eiu.com/.