The development of sophisticated packaging has vastly improved the shelf life of products. It has also helped to define brands, enabling them to advertise their products and connect with their customers. However these benefits come at a high environmental cost, with vast amounts of packaging ending up in landfill. More than half of this packaging is plastic.
Bioplastics provide a solution to both issues, removing the environmental impact without removing the packaging. Bioplastics are plastics made partly or wholly from materials derived from biological sources, and are often designed so that they biodegrade or compost at the end of their useful life. Bioplastics can generally be directly substituted for their oil-based equivalent. They can also be engineered to be chemically identical to standard industrial plastics.
Bioplastics have predominantly been produced from starches, which are made up of long chain carbohydrates that occur naturally in plants such as corn and potato. These carbohydrates are easy to remove from the plants and produce a plastic that easily biodegrades at the end of its useful lifetime. As a result, starch-based bioplastics are widely used in disposable products such as plastic bags, wrappings and other short-life packaging.
More recently, other natural products such as cellulose have been used to produce bioplastics with improved mechanical properties. As the main structural component of plant cell walls, cellulose produces bioplastic with increased rigidity and higher melting points. These products can be used across the catering, cosmetics and personal care sectors.
Barriers to Uptake
Oil-derived plastics still outperform bioplastics across a vast range of applications and, as a consequence, the bioplastics market remains small compared to that of fossil fuel based polymers. Estimates of the total global market size for bioplastics vary widely from 100,000 to 1.2 million tons. To put this in perspective, the UK alone uses around 5 million tons of oil-based plastics every year.
Looking ahead, a recent analyst forecast for the global bioplastic packaging market predicted annual growth of nearly 20 percent. One of the key factors contributing to this market growth is the increasing concern for environmentally-friendly packaging. However, the report also warned that premium pricing of bioplastic packaged products could pose a challenge to the growth of this market.
If the bioplastics market is to grow, both in terms of volume and range of markets, it is crucial that the industry responds to the core challenges of cost and performance. In order to achieve this we need to undertake research and development activities that tackle the intrinsic synthesis of bioplastics that currently keeps costs high and limits performance.
Pioneering Research into Renewable Chemicals
Although bioplastics are often based on natural materials, some oil-based chemicals are widely used in their manufacture to convey properties including mechanical strength, tear resistance and durability. Deriving these chemicals from a plentiful, natural source could significantly reduce costs, expand functionality and increase performance in bioplastics.
One of the most interesting sources of these bio-based chemicals is lignin, the complex hydrocarbon that helps to provide structural support in plants. As a waste product of the pulp and paper industry, lignin is a potentially abundant feedstock that could provide the foundation for a new generation of bioplastics.
Last year the Technology Strategy Board awarded a grant to a consortium, led by Biome Bioplastics, to investigate lignin as a bio-based alternative to the oil-derived organic chemicals used in the manufacture of bioplastics. The grant was part of an annual funding competition entitled ‘Sustainable high value chemical manufacture through industrial biotechnology.’
We partnered with the University of Warwick’s Centre for Biotechnology and Biorefining, who are pioneering academic research into lignin degrading bacteria to determine whether these chemicals can be extracted in significant quantities. The grant supported an initial feasibility project to isolate a chemical from lignin to replace the oil-derived equivalent currently used in a polyester that conveys strength and flexibility in some of our products.
Implications for the Bioplastics Market
Starting with the successful production of a bio-based polyester additive will allow us to integrate this development directly into our existing product range. This would reduce the cost and further enhance the sustainability of our products. This work will be fundamental in moving the performance and cost balance away from conventional oil-derived polymers and, we believe, will help to position Biome Bioplastics at the forefront of the market for intelligent, natural plastics.
Building on this work, Biome will explore the possibilities for deriving a wide selection of bio-based aromatic chemicals from lignin, reducing costs and expanding bioplastic functionality. In further work, it should be possible to modify the process developed for this particular molecule for other molecular fragments present in lignin, capitalizing on the research and giving potential for further growth in the bioplastics market.
At Biome Bioplastics, we anticipate that the availability of high performance polymers, manufactured economically from renewable sources, would considerably increase the bioplastics market and allow us to produce products that can challenge the dominance of oil-based plastics, and ultimately replace them completely.
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