Goodbye old plastics; hello bioplastics!

20th August, 2022.      //   General Interest, Market Intelligence, The End of Humanity  // 

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Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland developed the first synthetic plastic in 1907, which sparked a consumer boom in affordable yet highly desirable products that could be easily mass-produced. Since then, plastic has been used for an incredible variety of products around the world.

But the widespread adoption of plastics has not been without adverse consequences to people’s health and the environment. Plastics pollute our cities, oceans and even the air we breathe. Millions of animals are killed by plastics every year, from birds to fish to other marine organisms.

World Bank Managing Director for Operations Axel van Trotsenburg and Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi said in a Blog that Asean members lose as much as $80 billion to $120 billion a year due to the failure to recycle plastics. This represented 95 percent of the packaging value of plastic products in the region. 

“Southeast Asia has emerged as a hotspot for plastic pollution, with its rapid urbanization, rising middle class and inadequate infrastructure for waste management. Half of the top 10 countries contributing to plastic leakage to rivers and seas are located here,” they said, adding that “Covid-19 has been a pandemic of plastic, triggering huge increases in the consumption of masks, sanitizer bottles, online delivery packaging and other single-use items.”

In a recent study by US-based luggage storage company Bounce, plastic waste has damaged coral reefs and wildlife, which are the main attraction of the world’s top snorkeling destinations. Bounce said the volume of plastics in oceans has steadily grown at 5.14 percent annually. As of 2020, it said the total volume of plastic in oceans stood at 1.73 million tons.

From the Associated Press: “In a world increasingly troubled by the persistent harm that plastic—manufactured in petrochemical plants—has had on the environment, companies are investing billions of dollars to ramp up production of plastics made from natural, renewable materials that can be safely composted or can biodegrade under the right conditions. Bioplastics have long been used in medical applications. The stitches you got after cutting your hand slicing onions were likely made of a bioplastic thread that harmlessly dissolved into your body.”

Companies and investors see opportunities, the AP reported. Data from i3 Connect show investment in bioplastic manufacturing reached $500 million in the first three months of 2022, exceeding the previous high of $350 million in the last quarter of 2021. The money is coming in from both corporations and venture capitalists. Zion Market Research estimates the bioplastics market will surge from $10.5 billion in 2021 to some $29 billion in 2028.

Danimer Scientific is one company making a big bet on bioplastic with a recent expansion of its plant in Winchester, Kentucky. The Georgia-based firm makes a bioplastic called PHA using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil. The result is plastic pellets that manufacturers can use to mold products in the same way they use petrochemical plastic, Danimer CEO Stephen Croskrey said in an interview. Straws and plastic drink stirrers made from Danimer’s PHA are being used in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and large venues like Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California, Croskrey said.

The other primary bioplastic sold today is PLA—polylactic acid—usually produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugar cane. One producer is Minneapolis-based NatureWorks, a joint venture by Cargill, one of the world’s largest privately-held corporations, and Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical. It is the largest PLA company in the world, capable of producing 150,000 metric tons of bioplastic pellets annually at a plant in Blair, Nebraska. NatureWorks is building a $600 million plant in Thailand that will increase its production capacity by 50 percent, said Leah Ford, the company’s global marketing communications manager, in an AP interview.

The company’s “biggest visibility market,” Ford said, is compostable food service items such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers that, along with restaurant food waste, can be converted into a dark organic material to enrich soil in gardens and on farms. That’s important because food waste clogs recycling machinery and contaminates recyclable petroleum plastics, the AP report said.

As the AP reported, the nascent bioplastics industry envisions a far bigger role for materials made from corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other renewable materials in the hope of grabbing a larger share of a nearly $600 billion global plastic market.

Bioplastics are easier to biodegrade than petrochemical plastic, which can take centuries to disintegrate. This gives us hope that soon enough we can say goodbye to the old plastic material that does not rot.

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