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Bioplastics and global sustainability
J. N. Swamy and Balaji Singh Application of bioplastics is in its infancy stage but holds signiﬁcant promise in developing sustainable plastics for the future. Bioplastics are derived from renewable sources and may contain substantial amounts of biobased materials and/or exhibit biodegradation under various conditions. In essence, bioplastics describe two concepts at the same time: disposability and renewable sourcing.1 Both are driven by environmental sustainability, which includes the desire to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (notably of carbon dioxide, CO2 ), to displace and/or reduce our dependence on crude oil, and to improve the disposability of plastic materials. Figure 1 presents a classiﬁcation scheme of plastic materials based on these concepts. Some well-known bioplastics—including poly(lactic acid) (PLA), thermoplastic starches (TPS), and polyhydroxy alkanoate (PHA)—are based on biobased feedstock and exhibit biodegradation under various conditions. Products such as biobased polyamides and biopolyethylene are fabricated from biobased feedstocks but are not degradable. Others, like polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) and poly(butylenes succinate) (PBS), are typically produced from petrochemical feedstocks but offer biodegradation. Irrespective of production pathway, each concept contributes to environmental sustainability, at the cradle, the grave, or both. The various routes to bioplastics fabrication can conceptually be classiﬁed into a chemical and/or fermentation route to produce the six basic petrochemical feedstocks, which can then be transformed into traditional plastics (e.g., bioethanol, bioethylene, or biopolyethylene), gasiﬁcation of biobased feedstocks (syngas, methanol, oleﬁns, and polyoleﬁns), and design and development of new building blocks or molecules based on renewable bio sources using chemical and/or fermentation routes (e.g., PLA, PHA, or CO2 polymers). The ﬁrst two routes are attractive in terms of making existing plastics green and renewably sourced. The key technical challenge associated with these approaches is their production technology and related costs. As long as they are cost competitive, they serve as drop-in replacement in the market. The latter route essentially opens up new chemistries and possibilities that can potentially result in products never conceived before. However, the challenges inherent to this approach are cost,
Figure 1. Renewability versus degradability of plastics. HD/LLDPE: High-density/linear low-density polyethylene. PVC: Polyvinyl chloride. PLA: Poly(lactic acid). PHA/PHBs: Polyhydroxy alkanoates/butyrates. PA, PE, PP, PS: Polyamide, polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene. PET: Polyethylene terephthalate. PMMA: Poly(methyl methacrylic acid). PBT: Poly(butylene terephthalate). PTT: Poly(trimethylene terephthalate). PBS/PBSA: Poly(butylenes succinate)/poly[(butylenes succinate)-co-(butylenes adipate)]. CO2 : Carbon dioxide.
performance, application/product development, and factors related to market acceptance. A large majority of the well-known bioplastics, including PLA and PHA, are produced using this latter route. They are faced with all of these challenges. The current portfolio of bioplastics available in the market (or under active development) can be classiﬁed into old products sourced from biobased feedstock (e.g., biobased polyethylene, polyurethane, polyamides, polyvinyl chloride, PBT, PBS) and new products from biobased feedstock (e.g., PLA, PHAs, TPS, CO2 -epoxide copolymers). Among these, starch polymers (TPS) are the most widely used. They contribute to approximately two thirds of worldwide bioplastics consumption. In 2009, polyesters such as PLA and PHAs contributed to 27% of overall bioplastics consumption, with more than 90% consisting of PLA. Global demand for bioplastics in 2009 has been estimated at 385 kilo metric tonnes per annum (KTA), mainly driven by Europe contributing 42% of the demand, followed by the Americas and Asia. Continued on next page
Global demand for bioplastics (2009). PUR: Polyurethane. While they continue to grow. application of bioplastics is in its infancy stage but holds signiﬁcant promise in developing sustainable plastics for the future. use of food-based crops reduces the sustainability of these products and restricts their production to a few regions. president of CMR Inc. HDPE: Low-. it does not nurture a sustainable business model. Finally.. N. TX The authors have a combined experience of over 35 years in consulting for the petrochemicals and plastics industries. Balaji Singh. high-density PE. cost competitiveness. region. but as one viable option to improve environmental sustainability.1002/spepro.27g/cm3 )—much higher than for polyoleﬁns—skews the environmental footprint on a life-cycle basis in several applications. and application. including regarding biobased plastics and chemicals. KT: Kilo metric tonne. One of the key challenges faced by these products is the fact that density (1. While this represents a good beginning. strategies such as blending with polyoleﬁns and other plastics would be the best approach to reduce cost and improve performance in the near term. Biobased polyethylene production using bioethanol feedstock by Braskem will contribute nearly 25% of this demand.2 Asian countries are expected to dramatically emerge in this arena and are actively developing technologies to monetize their feedstock-rich agricultural economies. contributing to more than 70% of resin consumption. has presented on various topics related to alternate feedstocks and sustainability.’s Alternate Feedstocks newsletter. N. will further improve sustainability.10. Figure 2 shows the global demand for bioplastics by type. Bioplastics should not be viewed as the answer. Swamy is the editor of CMR Inc. J. Currently. issues related to contamination of recycling streams. A sizeable fraction can be attributed to consumption in blends with polyoleﬁns and other traditional plastics. especially in packaging (see Figure 3).3 biodegradation under controlled conditions (requiring commercial composting infrastructure not available in most consuming countries). New developments in nonfood-based platform technologies. and—most importantly—knowledge of the producers of these resins of application/product development. Other important challenges include performance compared to traditional plastics. or roughly twice current demand. Bioplastics intermaterial substitution opportunities. Packaging and food-service wares are the largest applications. Author Information Figure 3. LDPE. All of these issues have limited the use of these products to perceptionbased consumption in applications driven by brand owners seeking a green image. Products such as PLA and PHA will continue to target various polyoleﬁn and some polyethylene terephthalate (better known as PET) applications.25–1. In the next ﬁve years. Swamy and Balaji Singh Chemical Market Resources Inc. such as algae and cellulosics. Involvement of major polyoleﬁn players in this area can provide the resources and application knowledge needed to increase market penetration. They actively follow and analyze trends in alternate feedstocks and have trained over 50 professionals in the US and overseas in this ﬁeld. global bioplastics consumption is expected to increase to nearly 750KTA. Webster/Houston.003219 Page 2/3 Figure 2. there is a need for public awareness and infrastructure to manage end-of-life scenarios for bioplastics. Moreover. Continued on next page . J.
The Insider.1002/spepro. p. July 2009.10. of Copenhagen. J. Univ. Weber. Biobased Packaging Materials for the Food Industry: Status and Perspectives: A European Concerted Action. Proc. of Dairy and Food Science. Bioplastics and waste. C.au/Content/Attachment/Bioplastics PKN. 3. Global sustainability and the role of bioplastics. 2.003219 Page 3/3 References 1. News. 2000. Denmark. Singh. B. In press. Dept. FlexPo 2010. Packag.com. B. http://aipack. 34.pdf c 2010 Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) .