According to IHS Markit, global demand for PE, the world’s most used plastic, has nearly doubled during the last 20 years. Global PE demand is expected to exceed 100 million metric tons this year. However, significant new market pressures, including a rise in consumer expectations around sustainability, along with tightening environmental regulations in mature markets such as Europe and key growth markets such as China, could threaten future growth.
“The properties and processability of biodegradable polymers have improved, allowing the use of these materials in a broader range of applications, but legislation is the single-most important demand driver for these plastics,” Hackett said. “Restrictions on the use of non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags in Italy and France have led to a significant increase in the consumption of biodegradable polymers in those countries, and we expect European countries will continue to lead in legislative restrictions.”
Biodegradable polymer use has grown more slowly or stagnated in places that lack mandates, noted Hackett. “Growing consumer awareness and activism regarding environmental issues could certainly increase the market for biodegradable plastics,” she said. “To truly capture the benefits of these biodegradable polymers, however, you need to have the collection and composting infrastructure to support their use. Very few major cities or municipalities currently have the necessary infrastructure in place.”
Hackett noted the problems associated with actually biodegrading or composting plastics that claim to be biodegradable. First, these biodegradable polymers are compostable only in special industrial composting facilities, which operate at higher temperatures than home compost piles. An even smaller fraction of “biodegradable polymers is compostable in backyard compost bins; an even smaller subset is compostable in the soil or in marine environments,” said Hackett.
Despite the positive potential of biodegradable polymers, they are still mostly taking a backseat to other sustainability approaches, such as reducing plastics consumption and recycling. “For various reasons, which may include consumer confusion regarding bio-based plastics versus biodegradable polymers, there is not as much demand for these more sustainable plastics as you might expect, despite heightened public awareness of the plastics waste issue,” said Hackett. “In addition, suitable disposal options for products made from biodegradable polymers are often lacking. The cost of establishing the infrastructure necessary to support their collection and composting remains a barrier to demand growth.”