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How Long Is Too Long When It Comes to Biodegradability?

Shortening the amount of time it takes biodegradable plastics to break down and disappear from the environment is the holy grail for bioplastics developers. The race to improve is on.

What is an acceptable timeframe for biodegradable plastics to fragment and disappear from the environment? The primary selling point for plastics that biodegrade appears to be the length of time it takes for them to vanish. Fewer than 100 years seems to be acceptable.

The race is on to see which biodegradable product biodegrades the fastest. Japan’s NEC Corp. announced that its new NeCycle bioplastic is now commercially available in an injection-molding grade. NeCycle is made of 50% cellulose from non-edible plants, including straw and wood, and doesn’t require a coating. NeCycle’s properties mimic conventional plastics but with the added benefit that it will break down in as few as four years in soil or water.

In the grand scheme of the universe, I suppose that four years is a very short time. When people see it in the environment, however, that seems like way too long for anything plastic to persist.

Shortening the time it takes any biodegradable plastic to break down from years (or millennia) to a matter of weeks would seem to be the holy grail for developers of bioplastics. Oxo-biodegradable plastic has the most potential to succeed. Persistence Market Research has published a report on this topic, “Oxo-Biodegradable Plastic Packaging Market: Global Industry Analysis (2013-2017) and Forecast (2018-2026).”

The study on oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging projects that the global market is “expected to soar” at a rate of 5.4% CAGR during the forecast period, driven primarily by increasing demand for environmentally friendly packaging and supportive government regulations.

In 2017, the global oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging market stood at $637.3 million; it is estimated to surpass $1 billion by the end of 2026. 

Awareness of environmental health and the need to curb plastic pollution will offer potential growth opportunities for oxo-biodegradable plastics, which have only become a vital component in the packaging industry in recent years. A higher percentage of various types of plastics are being used for packaging, and are also being discarded after use. Most of the plastic ends up in landfills, where it takes several years to degrade, said the study. “This has created a huge concern for the health of the environment and little has been done to eradicate the issue,” said Persistence Market Research. “As complete elimination of plastic is not possible, manufacturers have been promoting the use of biodegradable packaging solutions. This has triggered the adoption of oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging solutions and is expected to drive the growth of the global market.”

The report mentions the “instability” that the oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging market is experiencing in the west, which may prove to be a “critical restraining factor in the coming decade.” Supportive government regulations regarding the use of oxo-biodegradable plastics in some parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Africa, will drive increased adoption, however.

Persistence Market Research noted that Asia Pacific is expected to be an attractive region for the manufacture and adoption of oxo-biodegradable plastics, and the market is expected to grow at a high value CAGR during the forecast period. Polyethylene will “witness high demand in the manufacturing of oxo-biodegradable plastics,” as will PET, which is gaining traction.

Oxo-biodegradable garbage bags are expected to see high demand in the near future, with sales expected to exceed $360 million by the end of 2026. The pharmaceutical and healthcare markets have shown increased adoption of oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging recently, and both of these segments are expected to contribute to the growth of the global market in the forecast period.

Key players in the manufacturing and distribution of oxo-biodegradable plastics are focused on investing in research to develop innovative packaging solutions with additional features that can enhance the quality and usability of the products, said the study. Key players competing in the global oxo-biodegradable plastic packaging market include Unibag Maghreb (Morocco); EPI Environmental Technologies Inc. (Vancouver, BC); Wells Plastics Ltd. (UK); Willow Ridge Plastics Inc. (Erlanger, KY); and Newtrans USA Co. (Miramar, FL).

It appears that the oxo-biodegradable plastics industry remains relatively small. Given the positive outlook for this material in terms of fast biodegradation — weeks rather than months or years — and if the oxo-biodegradable industry can come to terms with its detractors in the biodegradable plastics space, oxo-biodegradable plastics just might win the day.

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