Bioplastics in 2013: 5 trends to watch

December 27, 2012

In the past, words like "affordable", "recyclable", "durable", "reliable" or "good processability" did not leap to mind when talking about bioplastics. But all that's changing - and changing fast. And as bioplastics continue to reinvent themselves, they are starting to make their mark on the plastics market and industry.

So, what are the major developments to keep an eye on in 2013?

One of the most important developments from the past few years has been the emergence of what are known as drop-ins, or materials produced from monomer building blocks from biomass feedstocks, that can directly replace conventional petroleum-based plastics. The carbon content of plastics produced on the basis of these biomonomers comes from renewable sources, such as plants or biowaste.

Drop-ins offer a rapid route to market through existing infrastructure and knowhow. Also, new routes are increasingly opening up, bringing the economic production of biomonomers that have the advantage of fitting easily into existing production chains, increasingly within reach.

Potentially all grades of polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride can currently be made via biobased routes, as can various polyamides and polyesters. In fact, a market study from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Hanover showed that biobased commodity plastics, with a total of around 1 million tonnes, would make up the majority of production capacity in 2015.

The race to develop 100% bio-PET, for example, accelerated this year with Coca-Cola's push to produce a 100% bio-bottle. 100% bio-based PET was successfully produced on lab scale this year; more breakthroughs in this area are expected in the year to come. In fact, according to a European Bioplastics forecast, the next few years are likely to see the largest growth in the production of biobased polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate. The production capacity for biobased PET will continue to grow through 2016, reaching just over 4.5 million tons, or four-fifths of total bioplastic production capacity.

And, as the technology matures, the affordability of these drop-in materials, for which users must currently still pay a premium, will steadily improve.

The feedstocks used today to produce bioplastics are mainly starch or sugar derived from corn, potato, sugarcane and beetroot; in other words, from food crops. The use of arable land and edible crops to produce plastics is increasingly perceived as an undesirable development that could increase food prices and contribute to food shortages.

The coming years will see a shift from these so-called first generation feedstocks to second-generation feedstocks such as cellulosics. Cellulosic feedstocks, which consist of crop residues, wood residues, yard waste, municipal solid waste, algae or other biomass, sidestep the conflicts in land use.

They can be converted to sugars via various technologies, including enzymatic hydrolysis and biomass pretreatment. Already, cellulosic feedstocks are being used to produce, among other materials, cellulose acetates and lignin-based polymers. However, for cellulosic feedstocks to really come into their own, more, and more, sophisticated biorefineries are needed that can perform the process steps needed to produce various bioproducts. Once these are in place, a stream of non-food crop based fermentable sugars will become available for

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