Despite growing awareness of the environmental problems caused by plastics, global plastics production is still increasing, with the world forecast to produce over 600 million tonnes of plastic by 2030. Bioplastics, a class of polymers manufactured from biomass, could be a solution. Many are biodegradable and, because they are made from renewable resources, they could help ease the world's dependency on fossil-based resources. Despite these advantages, bioplastics have not yet seen widespread application due to barriers such as cost and scale. The fall in oil prices in 2014 exacerbated the situation, with bioplastics companies struggling to compete with extremely cheap petrochemically derived plastics.
However, the situation is beginning to change. Thanks in part to innovations in synthetic biology, these polymers are becoming more affordable to manufacture. Increasing customer awareness of the climate impact of petrochemically derived polymers as well as a global shift in demand away from plastics with a lifespan of several hundreds of years has resulted in renewed focus on this previously inaccessible area.
As a percentage of total plastics consumption, bioplastics struggle to gain market share from fossil-fuel-based plastics despite their claimed environmental benefits, according to a report from IDTechEx, Bioplastics 2020-2025. Produced from biomass feedstocks, bioplastics could help solve the problem of plastic pollution in the environment.
Bioplastics such as polylactic acid, polyhydroxyalkaoates and polybutyl succinate are biodegradable and can have similar, if not identical, functionalities to their fossil-based counterparts. Despite their environmental benefits, however, bioplastics are still struggling to wrest market share from conventional plastics. The IDTechEx report explores the factors helping and hindering adoption of bioplastics.
Barriers to more widespread adoption of bioplastics start with one major issue — they are still more expensive to produce than petrochemically derived materials.
Additionally, although most consumers say they want brands that are sustainable, few are actually willing to pay extra for it. The willingness to pay more falls sharply for products with a so-called green premium over 5%. Oil prices, which fell in 2014 and have stayed low since then, are making it even harder for bioplastics to compete on price, said IDTechEx. As a finite resource, oil prices cannot remain this low forever, but until prices rise, bioplastics producers will have to work hard to cut production costs. (The recent huge drop in oil prices has made virgin resins even less expensive, putting alternatives such as bioplastics even further behind the sustainability curve.)
Another issue is that, despite proofs of concept in academic settings, the transition to industrial-scale production is far from straightforward. Many companies have gone bankrupt trying to make the jump, said Dr. Michael Dent, one of the report’s authors. “A conservative approach to production methods and the complexity of high-volume fermentation do not marry well,” Dent said in the report’s summary. “Furthermore, there is a dearth of capital investment to help academic innovators and early-stage startups expand production, both from VCs and from governments.”
However, governments are increasingly introducing policy changes to help overcome those challenges. IDTechEx notes that in 2019 the EU updated its Bioeconomy Strategy, making funding available for circular economy projects. Also last year, the San Francisco Bay Area introduced a range of restrictions on single-use plastics. Bioplastics companies are increasingly employing innovative technical approaches to reduce costs, including using synthetic biology. That said, the road forward for bioplastics to gain significant market share remains tortuous.