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Green Matter: Europe still top consumer of biodegradable polymers

Europe continues to be largest consuming region for biodegradable polymers, accounting for more than half of global total, says a newly published IHS Chemical global market research report.

Karen Laird

April 23, 2013

3 Min Read
Green Matter: Europe still top consumer of biodegradable polymers

According to the report, mounting consumer pressure and legislation such as plastic bag bans and global warming initiatives will increase demand for biodegradable polymers (plastics) in North America, Europe and Asia from 269,000 tonnes in 2012 to nearly 525,000 tonnes in 2017, representing an average annual growth rate of nearly 15% during the five-year period 2012-2017.

In terms of biodegradable polymer end-uses, it is estimated that the food packaging (including fast-food and beverage containers), dishes and cutlery markets are the largest end-uses and the major growth drivers. In both North America and Europe, these markets account for the largest uses, and strong double-digit growth is expected in the next several years. Foam packaging once dominated the market and continues to represent significant market share for biodegradable polymers, behind food packaging, dishes and cutlery. Compostable bags, as well as single-use carrier plastic bags, follow foam packaging in terms of volume.

The report also noted that these biodegradable polymers offer expanding uses for biomedical applications. Another developing use for these biodegradable polymers is in the shale gas industry, where they are used during hydro-fracking as more environmentally friendly proppants to 'prop open' fractures in rock layers so oil and gas can be released.


Strong North American growth
In 2012, Europe was the dominant market for biodegradable polymers, consuming 147,000 tonnes or about 55% of world consumption; North America accounted for 29% and Asia approximately 16%. Landfill waste disposal and stringent legislation are key market drivers in Europe and include a packaging waste directive to set recovering and recycling targets, a number of plastic bag bans, and other collection and waste disposal laws to avoid landfill.

The most acceptable disposal method for biodegradable polymers is composting. However, composting requires an infrastructure, including collection systems and composting facilities. Composting has been a growing component of most European countries' municipal solid waste management strategies for some time, and the continent has an established and growing network of facilities, while the U.S. network of composting facilities is smaller, but expanding.

North American consumption of biodegradable polymers has grown significantly in recent years, according to the IHS report, primarily due to the following factors: biodegradable polymers have become more cost competitive with petroleum-based products, and there has been growing support at the local, state and federal levels for these products (for example, legislation defining biodegradability, and plastic bag bans). In addition, there has been progress in addressing issues relative to solid waste disposal, such as improving composting infrastructure.

In Asia, there has been some growth of biodegradable polymers use due to government and industry promoting their use. This also includes plastic bag bans and global warming initiatives. However, Asian consumption of biodegradable polymers has not increased as much as expected.


PLA dominates
In 2012, the two most important commercial, biodegradable polymers were polylactic acid (PLA) and starch-based polymers, accounting for about 47% and 41%, respectively, of total biodegradable polymers consumption. Starch sources vary worldwide, but include corn, potatoes, cassava, and sugar beets. In Europe, starch-based biodegradable polymers are the major type consumed, accounting for 62% of the market, due to Europe's large starch-based capacity and their use in many applications. This is followed by PLA, with 24% and other biodegradable polymer types with 14%.

The IHS Chemical CEH Biodegradable Polymers Marketing Research Report focuses on biodegradable polymers, including compostable materials, but not necessarily including all biobased products.

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