The bioplastics market evolves quickly, going from pilot plants to industrial production in merely 10 years. Today I venture into pointing some current trends that will define its future in the next 5-10 years.
Bioplastics have entered the market, have been tested in several applications and are produced at industrial level. In following years bioplastics producers already established will have to focused on improving their products performance. In order to do this, they can focus on one of the following factors:
- Increasing the renewable content of the final product by using additives, paints and adhesives that are also renewable.
- Achieving certifications related to renewable content or compostability.
- Improving properties by blending with oil-based plastics.
- Penetrating the durable goods market, for example in electronic products or automotive sector.
For more information, do check the following presentation by Jim Lunt & Associates, with information regarding current bioplastic suppliers, applications and future trends.
Changes in raw materials
Today most bioplastics are produced from starch or sugar. The starch is obtained from corn or potato. The main sources for sugar are sugarcane, beetroot and corn. Bioplastics use sugar obtained from the same sources used by bioethanol producers and therefore certain trends will be shared by both. One of the clear trends in the biofuel market is the search for new raw materials that substitute or complement those already being used. Some of the reasons for this are:
- Perception that biofuels, and other chemical products, derived from the same sources as food results in price hikes and therefore can represent a danger for the final consumer. Or in other words, our cars may end up drinking what other people could eat. This is a very difficult question and honestly, I don’t feel qualified to raise an opinion on it. However, it is clear that public perception of the issue could be a problem.
- Reducing costs: Bioplastics production has become cheaper in the last years, mainly due to industrial production. The use of cheaper raw materials will be a more stable way to reduce the final cost of the product.
- The scale issue: If we plan to substitute an important part of our consumption or products derived from oil, we are going to need a lot of raw material. This can lead to an intensive agriculture that can be harmful for environment.
- Waste generation: The part of the plants currently used in the biorefineries is small and a considerable amount of organic waste is generated.
- Technology adaptation: The ideal technology can be implemented anywhere in the world, regardless of where it has been developed (USA and Europe, in the case of bioplastics).
Taking into account the aforementioned factors, 2 clear candidates appear as possible alternatives to current raw materials: cellulosic materials and waste of any kind.
From sugar and starch to cellulosic derivatives
Parts of the plant with low content in starch or sugar are discarded today. These parts, which include leafs, corncobs, etc. will start to be used too. Other cellulosic sources can be totally different from the crops used now, like forestry and agricultural wastes or grass. The use of cellulosic sources will increase the yield of current crops and reduce production costs.
Waste as raw material
Domestic, or other, waste will become viable raw material sources thanks to the ability to adapt of bacteria and algae. The advantages: waste generation is reduced and is cheap! Furthermore, it would be a technology that can easily exported anywhere in the world, regardless of climate, arable surface or existing crops, as waste is created everywhere.
Two markets coming together
Collaborations, already seen today, between companies from the agricultural and the chemical sectors will become even more important. If it is normal for a petrochemical company to have interests in oil extraction, it would also become normal for companies to ensure renewable feedstock availability. Dow Chemicals, that aims to produce polyethylene from sugarcane, has been forced to change plans in Brazil as its joint venture with Crystalsev – a Brazilian sugar producer – was broken. In fact, even if Dow will continue with the project on its own, it has already announced it will look for a partner in order to obtain the raw material: sugarcane.
Agricultural companies that have entered the materials market will continue to follow allies in the chemical sector to improve their products and their distribution. Futerro, a joint venture of Galactic (global lactic acid producer) and Total Petrochemicals is a good example. Futerro produces PLA from lactic acid supplied by Galactic, using Total polymerisation technology, which also brings its knowledge of distribution and sales of plastics.
Big fish eats little fish
The bioplastics market is entering an unavoidable consolidation phase. In the last 5 years the number of companies dedicated to produce bioplastics or present in any way in the value chain has increased to reach hundreds. Consolidation will be driven in part by the benefits resulting from becoming industrial, together with a highly commoditised petrochemical industry that is actively searching added value products. It is therefore safe to assume that in the next 5 years those companies in the chemical or agricultural sector that can afford it, will buy smaller companies with product or technologies that complement their portfolio.
It remains difficult to forecast where such a dynamic market will reach, but I have no doubt it will continue to grow. Conventional plastics from renewable sources will become more common and those with different chemistries will find their niche markets. Bigger companies will be formed by the agglutination of small players, as alliances between chemical and agricultural companies will be strengthen. We will look further than the current crops for feedstock and there will be a stronger focus on process able to convert any type of feedstock into a viable material.