Bioplastics growing, but are ‘no panacea’

Published: December 7, 2012 6:00 am ET

Plant-based plastics account for less than 1 percent of total global resin demand — but that could change quickly.

Hasso von Pogrell, managing director of the Berlin-based trade group European Bioplastics, told the EurActiv.com website that bioplastics are still a niche material, but it’s still a market that’s growing rapidly.

EurActiv has two stories about bioplastics: a Q&A interview with von Pogrell headlined “Industry chief: ‘In the long run, there is no alternative to bioplastics’ ” and a story headlined “Plant-based plastics ‘no panacea,’ Greens warn.”

Some of von Pogrell’s statistics are noteworthy. He said global bioplastic demand currently stands at about 1 million metric tons annually, but it’s forecast to hit 6 million metric tons by 2016.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to total global resin production of 260 million metric tons.

But it’s still becoming a very significant share of certain plastics markets — especially PET beverage bottles, thanks to the push of the big soft drink companies’ plans to use bio-based PET.

“The main driver is, of course, the growing demand for more sustainably developed consumer products. Brand-owners and OEMs are looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint and replace limited fossil-based materials with renewable, bio-based solutions. More and more companies therefore integrate bioplastics into their corporate sustainability programs,” von Pogrell said.

But not all environmentalists are sold on the benefits of plant-based plastics.

The story quotes Robbie Blake, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, saying that “Bioplastics raise exactly the same controversy about our over-consumption of land, and the damaging style of intensive plantation agriculture used to mass-produce the raw materials.”

Plant-based plastics risk competing for land with food. And many bio-based resins, including PET and high density polyethylene, aren’t biodegradable, so the environmental advantages over conventional resins aren’t clear, he said.

“Other solutions for our insatiable appetite for plastic exist like reusable bottles, bags and packaging, recycling, and consuming less in the first place,” Blake said.

I’ve covered the topic of plant-based plastics vs. recycled plastics before, and every time I mention it I get feedback from people who say it’s not a question of one or the other — plant-based plastics can be recycled.

I understand that point, but urge Blog readers to keep in mind that the real question is which material brand-owners want to use to meet their sustainability goals.

If a brand-owner wants to use 100 percent plant-based resins, what does that mean to the brand’s use of recycled-content resins?

The last time I checked, you can’t squeeze in any more than 100 percent.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”


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Bioplastics growing, but are ‘no panacea’

Published: December 7, 2012 6:00 am ET

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