Producers and packaging associations claim improvements to cost, performance and moisture barrier properties of bioplastics as well as more investment in sorting technology to prevent contamination of recycling waste streams will enable the industry to compete more effectively with conventional plastics.
Bioplastics are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch or pea starch. However, many are reliant on fossil fuel-derived energy for their manufacturing.
Christophe Doukhi de Boissoudy, president of the Club des Bioplastiques, told attendees at the conference section of the Emballage 2008 trade show that the development of bioplastics for food and drink packaging has been hindered due to the fact that they are costlier to produce than petroleum based plastics.
He predicts that with more investment in R&D to enable the fine tuning of bioplastics so ensure they become technologically and environmentally competitive this cost gap with petroleum-based plastics will be drastically reduced.
Doukhi de Boissoudy added that producers of bioplastic packaging are aiming for price stabilization by 2015.
Meanwhile, the BCC research group said that the market for biodegradable plastics, in terms of volume, reached 541 million lbs in 2007, and is expected to reach 1.2 billion lbs by 2012.
And market analysts, Freedonia, predicts that natural polymer demand will grow 7.1 per cent annually to $4bn in 2012, with expansion due in part to improved production technologies for materials such as PLA.
The group said that PLA will see significant growth in packaging areas such as thermoformed containers.
Communication spokesperson for European Bioplastics, to Melanie Gentzik, told FoodProductionDaily.com that while bioplastics have no impact on the current food supply and availability situation, technical solutions to use mainly non-food crops in their manufacturer are under investigation or already in use.
She called for all parties involved in their production to support sustainable development of bioplastics, and to take into account that no raw material has unlimited availability and therefore the most efficient use of resources must be achieved.
“Bioplastics should be regarded as a solution to promote sustainable development and not as a threat to it,” said Gentzik.
Most bioplastics will only degrade in the tightly controlled conditions of commercial composting units. An internationally agreed standard, EN13432, defines how quickly and to what extent a plastic must be degraded under commercial composting conditions for it to be called biodegradable.
There is no standard applicable to home composting conditions for bioplastics.
Italian bioplastic manufacturer Novamont said that that producing one kilogram of its starch-based product uses 500g of petroleum and consumes almost 80 per cent of the energy required to produce a traditional polyethylene polymer.
And environmental data from NatureWorks, manufacturer of PLA bioplastic, says that making its plastic material delivers a fossil fuel saving of between 25 and 68 per cent compared with polyethylene, in part due to its purchasing of renewable energy certificates for its manufacturing plant.
According to the company, its PLA can be physically recycled, composted through industrial processes, incinerated via waste to energy systems, and also chemically recycled back into its base monomer unit of lactic acid.