The bioplastics industry, albeit healthy and growing, faces multiple challenges in sourcing, end-of-life management, labeling and marketing.
That's according to Catherine Goodall, project director with Environmental Packaging International, a Jamestown, R.I.-base consultancy specializing in corporate sustainability.
Goodall estimates annual capacity of bio-based resins at no less than 1.1 billion pounds. Next year, the five largest suppliers together will provide about 330.7 million pounds of polylactic acid, 110.2 million pounds of polyhydroxyalkanoates, 44 million pounds of starch polyester, and 66 million pounds of copolyesters, she said.
Goodall estimates the industry will grow 20 percent annually in the next several years, with innovations in materials, grades, additives and blends.
The supply of bio-based plastics, however, is still limited, she told the audience at the Biodegradable Plastics in Packaging Applications conference, held Sept. 13-14 in Rosemont.
The price of production is still driven in part by petroleum. Ethanol demand pushes corn prices up, and there is growing concern over nonfood uses of food crops.
``People see it as competition over global food supply ... but right now it's mostly targeted at biofuels,'' she said.
Another challenge is how to optimize end-of-life management. In the center of the debate is the issue of PLA bottles contaminating recycling streams. Goodall said current levels of PLA do not pose significant contamination concerns, but PLA bottles in large numbers will harm the economies of PET bottle recycling.
As few communities have sorting capability for PLA vs. other plastics, the recycling industry called on major PLA producer NatureWorks LLC to put a moratorium on PLA in bottles until the resin's recyclability has been demonstrated. In response, NatureWorks has announced a buy-back program.
The U.S. also lacks a consistent way of labeling bioplastic, which is not included in Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s resin identification codes.
``Most states require an SPI code of `7-other' to be used on all other materials and/or multilayer plastics'' that don't fall under a specific code, Goodall said. But Michigan also includes a code of 8-D for degradable, defined as ``capable of being broken down by biodegradation, or chemical degradation into component parts within 360 days under exposure to the elements.''
This year California introduced Senate Bill 898 to add code ``0'' for PLA biodegradable plastics, but the amended bill no longer relates to labeling plastic packaging.
Consumer awareness of bioplastics is growing, but most have trouble differentiating bio-based vs. biodegradable, or recyclable vs. recycled content. It is important to educate them about what the terms means, she said.
* Bio-based plastic refers to plastics made from biologically derived materials, and many are blended with traditional resins.
* Degradable plastics break down physically into small pieces. Biodegradable plastics need to meet certain standards (such as ASTM) for decomposition into carbon dioxide, water and biomass in specified time frames.
* Compostable plastics meet standards for industrial composting, while home-compostable plastics do not require the high temperatures and optimal conditions of industrial composting.
A recent study in the United Kingdom by Material Change for a Better Environment of Banbury, England - better known as WRAP - reveals that only 10 percent of U.K. consumers always look for disposal instructions on the label, whereas 55 percent never do, according to Goodall.
Marketing efforts can help in these areas, she said.