In recent years suppliers have been producting biodegradable materials such as polylactic acid (PLA), a starch derivative made from corn and other high-starch plants, and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), using sugars, plant oils and bio-waste.
The demand is growing as consumers' environmental concerns increase, and as large retailers pressure food manufacturers to packaging goods in "green" materials. Regulatory pressure in the EU to cut down on packaging waste is also pushing demand.
The primary factors driving development of the biodegradable packaging market include the increase in crude oil prices, which has narrowed the price differential, Nerac Advisors said in its new report.
Other key factors include consumer demand, the proliferation of convenience packaging, the development of new applications for bioplastics and the increased economic viability as production ramps up and unit costs decrease.
The development of a composting infrastructure for the optimal disposal of bioplastic products, is also a necessary ingredient.
"The economic viability of biodegradable plastics made from renewable sources is increasing, as production ramps up and unit costs decrease," the firm stated. "A range of renewable plant materials studied is widening, and several show great promise."
Currently, packaging accounts for 39 per cent of the overall biodegradable polymer market, with food packaging only a small fraction of that, Nerac noted.
Despite the potential of biodegradable packaging materials, significant barriers to growth remain and the segment remains a niche market. Such materials account about one to two per cent of the food packaging segment, which makes up about 40 per cent of the $460 billion global packaging industry, Nerac stated.
In the EU bioplastics accounted for about 0.14 per cent of Western Europe's total thermoplastics consumption in 2005. And the EU accounts for 59 per cent of the global polymer market, as compared to North America at 22 per cent and Asia
at 19 per cent.
"Currently, only a few companies are producing biodegradable packaging materials on a large enough scale to be commercially successful," the firm stated.
One indication of the growing size of the market is the increase in the number of patents for biodegradable food packaging, which continue to be filed worldwide.
The number of patent publications relating to biodegradable polymers currently stands at about 8,843, according to Nerac. When narrowed to biodegradable packaging, the
number of patent publications is about 6,972.
Of these patents and patent applications for biodegradable food packaging number 2,320.
New technologies using renewable plant materials as a biodegradable food packaging are being explored and patented, the firm noted.
Biodegradable packaging is being manufactured from refuse such as sugar cane waste and other sustainable plant byproducts, including corn, potatoes and bamboo, the applications show.
These materials do not produce environmentally harmful byproducts, and they are non-toxic and biodegradable, often decomposing within just a few weeks, if they are disposed of under appropriate conditions, Nerac stated.
Potatoes and corn dominate biodegradable food packaging patents.
"However, aside from the moral argument against diverting food crops to industrial uses, increasing demands on corn production for biofuels, while good for the farming industry, has resulted in increased prices that could alter the economics that make its long-term utility as a polymer for packaging questionable," the firm warned.
Agricultural waste products show promise and avoid such controversial moralism, the firm stated.
"Even so, consumer demand for products that are environmentally friendly, safer and nontoxic, as well as a currently favorable economic scenario leads to the conclusion that biodegradable packaging products will become increasingly popular," the report stated.