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June 24, 2024
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Research by Cleantech Group points to next-generation bioplastics and advanced recycling to reduce carbon footprint

Manufacturers can cut a product’s carbon footprint nearly in half simply by incorporating some percentage of bioplastic materials. Plastic producers can easily add biodegradability to existing processes without needing to overhaul their infrastructure.”

-- Cleantech Group Materials & Chemicals Associate Buff López

Cleantech Group researchers Buff López and Parker Bovée answered WATERTODAY’s questions

By Suzanne Forcese

WT: Global infrastructure relies on Plastics. In 2023, the global plastics market was valued at a staggering $712B and is anticipated to climb to well over $1T by 2033.

While the market growth is astounding, it is cause for significant concern since mostconventional plastics are non-biodegradable. They can shed micro-/nano-plastic particles when discarded, harming local environments, contaminating waterways, and causing health issues. Yet we rely on plastics.

López: Plastics are literally everywhere. They’re in our medical devices, packaging, building materials, cosmetics, paints, electronics, vehicles, textiles. Plastics are durable and flexible for a range of applications, so why would we want to get rid of them? Rather, we should be talking about decarbonizing plastics. That includes bioplastics, but also advanced recycling.

WT: Parker, can you give us a sense of where plastic recycling is today?

Bovée: Plastic production is expected to double by 2050. Similarly, plastic emissions from production and disposal are expected to double by 2060. Plastic recycling can tackle both production and disposal related emissions by recirculating plastic, reducing the need for virgin plastic production, and polluting disposal methods. 

WT: How effective is the status quo in mechanical recycling?

Bovée: The recycling status quo uses mechanical recycling for 90% of all recycling, creating several issues:

  • Mechanical recycling requires expensive, manual sorting
  • Mechanical recycling only accepts PET, HDPE, PP, LDPE and produces mixed resins
  • Recycled plastic is often contaminated and low quality, limiting applications and offtake partners
  • Current recycling rate is just 8% of all plastic waste due to technical process limitations, uncoordinated waste handling, and lack of demand

WT: It would appear that ‘feedstock specific’ is a limiting factor. Buff, can you give our viewers a brief 101 on bioplastics.

López: Bioplastics are plastics derived from biomass. The biomass is typically organic waste or can be genetically modified organisms grown for the specific purpose of being turned into plastic (e.g., PHA plastic)

WT: And are they biodegradable?

López: Not all bioplastics are biodegradable. In fact, we don’t want all of them to be. For engineering applications and applications where mechanical properties are vital, the integration of biobased materials can help reduce a product’s carbon footprint without the durability trade-off. Biodegradable bioplastics are gaining popularity in single-use plastics such as being home compostable (CARBIOS’ PLA products) or water-soluble (NOHBO).

WT: How can plastics solve the plastic crisis?

López The plastics crisis is largely attributed to single-use plastics. In that sense, home-compostable/naturally biodegradable biobased plastics (bioplastics) can replace conventional single-use plastics. This is a drop-in solution with reduced emissions and end-of-life designed in mind for environmentally friendly waste management.

WT: Why aren’t more producers switching to bioplastics?

López: First, the infrastructure required to produce biobased materials is largely underdeveloped.

The USDA recently outlined a robust approach to building out the bioeconomy supply chain. According to the report:

“Biomass is organic material that comes from crop residues, agricultural and food wastes, forest residuals, livestock, as well as biomass crops that are grown specifically as feedstocks to produce biobased products. After harvest or collection, biomass can be used to make sustainable fuel, fibers, electricity, construction materials, plastics, insulation, personal care items.”

Still, there are innovators coming online that have plant-based additives to be incorporated into traditional plastics. In such cases bioplastics are not necessarily a requirement.

Fossil fuels would still be involved, but at least we solve the end-of-life waste issue. For example, Utopia Plastix integrates plants to plastic producers’ products to make them biodegradable and can even make the product more durable and fire resistant.

Major plastics producers have begun to pay more attention to bioplastics and biodegradable additives. But even with social pressure, these producers are going to make as much money from fossil fuel products for as long as they can.

WT: Can you give us a sense of the current use of bioplastics?

López: Bioplastics are in use now, but according to European Bioplastics, the current production capacity is near ~80%. The production capacity is expected to rise 3.5X by 2028, but that increase would still only account for less than 2% of the 2023 plastics production of over 400M tons.

There isn’t much room for additional uptake of bioplastics at the current state of production, meaning we need more robust scaling of these technologies.

WT: According to your research, advanced recycling offers promise. It accepts all plastic types, produces higher quality products, and accepts cheaper feedstocks. Parker, can you summarize some key points of the research please, and name the companies are currently implementing the processes:

Bovée: Advanced recycling technologies alongside mechanical recycling could meet over 30% of global polymer demand by 2040.

Advanced recycling targets three primary offtake markets:

  • Plastic-to-fuel: Usually pyrolysis or gasification (Plastic Energy, Brightmark)
  • Plastic-to-chemicals: Extracted from deconstructed polymers following pyrolysis or depolymerization (Anellotech, GreenMantra, MacroCycle)
  • Plastic-to-plastic: Technically possible across technologies, but solvent dissolution most effective and targeted (Polystyvert, APK, PureCycle)
  • Solvent dissolution can be used to extract pure, uncontaminated polymers such as PP and HDPE from packaging products (31.2% of annual plastic volume)

Interestingly, Solvent dissolution can be integrated into mechanical recycling, increasing profits and creating circular plastic packaging today.

WT: Sound like a good opportunity for investors to jump in.

López: This is a significant opportunity for investors right now as nearly the entire bioplastics potential market remains untapped. We know that legislation will change to support adoption of these biomaterials, but we’re not seeing a lot of action being taken to support these materials in the private sector.

This is in part due to some confusion of the bioplastics landscape.

WT: Where are you seeing this confusion?

López: Over 100 countries are phasing out and disincentivizing the production of conventional plastics, generally targeting single use, or requiring reduction of its use in plastics for durable plastics as social and environmental justice advocates call for action.

But bioplastics are being grouped into plastic bans. This may be because the first generations of bioplastics (PLA, PHA, bioPE, etc.) shed micro-/nano-plastics. They were typically only industrially biodegradable, and harmed recycling infrastructure. This led policymakers to form the same attitudes toward bioplastics as they do conventional plastics.

WT: Would you say that policy is limiting innovation?

López: Misconceptions remain in the policy framework. Policy fails to recognize the positive impact that bioplastics have over conventional plastics. It limits bioplastics innovators with its overly cautious views, preventing the switch to biobased products and stunting innovation across the biomaterials landscape—not just bioplastics.

Even broader, this led to a culture of marketing bioplastics technology without mention of ‘bioplastic’ that has resulted in a confusing landscape for consumers, producers, and policymakers. Innovators are worried that their solutions will be banned from sale if it is revealed that their solution were to be considered a plastic, or that consumers will take preference to products that omit mention of bioplastic. As such, innovators are marketing ‘biopolymers’, ‘biomaterials’, ‘plastic alternatives’, etc., as part of their push to introduce these materials to the market.

WT: Is it even reasonable to expect that plastics will ‘go away’?

López: Despite the growing interest in bioplastics, it’s crucial to recognize that conventional plastics are deeply entrenched in our society and economy. The infrastructure built around the production, distribution, and disposal of plastics is extensive and not easily replaced or reconfigured. Therefore, while efforts to reduce plastic consumption and transition to more sustainable materials are essential, it’s unrealistic to expect plastics to disappear entirely.

There are non-plastic alternatives (i.e., wood, metal, composites, etc.), but these are unlikely to ever compete with the cheap and durable plastics we all know (think of those paper straws that quickly lose their structure before one can finish one’s drink that leaves a bad taste in consumers’ mouths).

Bioplastics are the most efficient solution to avoid an entire infrastructure overhaul. 

There’s still a significant gap between bioplastics demand potential, availability of supply, and production capacity. As consumer attitudes and rapidly changing legislation continue to drive sustainability, investing in bioplastics may not only be financially rewarding but crucial to addressing the environmental challenges posed by conventional plastics. Nearly the entire plastics market remains untapped (99.5%), presenting a lucrative opportunity for investors to capitalize on bioplastics disrupting an enormous market. 

Bovée: I would add that plastic recycling and bioplastics are going to be used to fulfill specific areas where cross contamination risk is highly manageable or not a concern. Some examples here would be food/drink packaging and shipping plastics. Some areas where recycled plastic would be difficult to incorporate are anything relating to medical devices coming from a non-virgin source. There are some companies using insect silk to replace certain medical plastic, but the medical industry generally is a safe bet for using virgin plastic.


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