Bigger than Ethanol – The Future in Bioplastics

Bigger than Ethanol – The Future in Bioplastics

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“I just want to say one word to you,” character Mr. McGuire said to young Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin, in the 1967 film, The Graduate. “Just one word. Plastics.”

The demand for US bioplastics is growing by 20 percent each year; due to the environmentally friendly, economic and practical nature of bioplastics, it’s demand is only bound to continue. If you thought ethanol was big, think bigger.

According to a piece in AgWeb, bioplastics can be made from two components: PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) and PLA (polylactide) resins. The former, PHA, is flexible, biodegradable, and can be composted. The latter is a tough product that may only be broken down by municipal compost facilities.

While the former is the resin that environmentalists have their eyes on, both resins are expected to remain in demand. “Polylactic acid (PLA) is expected to remain the most extensively used resin in the bioplastics market through the forecast period,” one piece in PlasticsNews says. “But bio-based polyethylene — which entered the market in 2010 — is expected to offer the best opportunities for growth through 2016, increasing rapidly from a small base.”

Western Europe was the leading consumer in bioplastics in 2012, according to a Freedonia report released in November 2013. The report suggests that demand in Europe will also climb, as policy and regulations encourage the use of the environmentally friendly alternatives. China, too, has become a major consumer of bioplastics. This means there’s a whole lot of room to grow.

While the U.S. and Europe used to be the big producers of bioplastic, the tides are shifting south. According to the same study, Brazil is expected to be the world’s largest bioplastics producer by 2022.

While there are plenty of bioplastic products on the market—the Schick Xtreme3 Eco razor, Potato Chip bags, and soda bottles—there is still much R&D to be completed. Recent research shows that bioplastic might not only be biodegradable, but also fertilizing.

“We’ve been testing a plastic that is half PLA and half soy protein,” said David Grewell, an Iowa State University researcher, to Agweb. “If put it in the ground, it acts like a fertilizer.” These pots are not yet commercially available, but the glint of the future is undoubtedly there.

While there is much promise in using these bioplastics, there is undoubtedly the concern that it will affect the food production market.

“In the long run this could become an issue,” said Frederic Scheer, CEO of Cereplast, to Scientific American. “You cannot have access to farmland without creating pressures on the food system.”

Despite these concerns, many feel that the environmentally friendly, practical, economic and opportunitstic aspects of bioplastics overrides any negative aspects.

“There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”

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