At the European Bioplastics Conference Dec. 6, Managing Director of European Bioplastics Hasso von Pogrell combined a traditional update of the bioplastics market along with a discussion about the implications for bioplastics from proposed Plastic Packaging and Waste Regulations in Europe.
First, the good news: After a period of stagnation in 2020, mainly due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, global bioplastics production capacities are once again on the rise. According to the latest figures, compiled in collaboration with the Hürth, Germany-based research group Nova Institute, these are set to increase significantly from around 2.23 million tonnes in 2022 to approximately 6.3 million tonnes in 2027.
“Once again, this shows the resilience and importance of our industry,” von Pogrell said.
Bioplastic alternatives exist for almost every conventional plastic material and corresponding application. Due to a strong development of polymers, such as PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), polylactic acid (PLA), biobased PAs (nylons) as well as a steady growth of biobased polypropylene (PP), the production capacity will continue to increase significantly and diversify within the next five years.
While bioplastics are increasingly finding application in numerous sectors, the main application is still packaging, which accounts for 48 percent (1 million metric tons) of the total bioplastics market in 2022. Nonetheless, their application in industries such as automotive and transport, agriculture and horticulture and electrics and electronics will gradually expand as well in the coming years.
In geographical terms, the focus continues to shift eastward. Although currently, one-fourth of production capacity is located in Europe, this is expected to dwindle to one-fifth by 2027, with Asia set to play a leading role in this space. Already a major production hub, manufacturing over 40 percent of today’s bioplastics production, it is expected to account for over 60 percent by 2027.
“We will see an impressive increase in bioplastics production over the next years. However, the big question is, does Europe still want to play a significant role in the world league of bioplastics or does it give up its leadership in the field of innovative sustainable materials? Investment into infrastructure as well as research requires the right political and economic framework conditions,” said von Pogrell. “Therefore, the European policymakers should make use of the many initiatives related to the European Green Deal to clearly acknowledge and promote bio-based and compostable plastics.”
He spent the second part of his talk addressing the impact of the proposals put forward by the European Commission for the Plastic Packaging and Waste Regulation, and the ‘misinformation’ on which some — in relation to bio-based plastics are based. The new proposals, for example, state that biomass used to produce bio-based plastics must be sustainably sourced, with no harm to the environment and in respect of the ‘cascading use of biomass' principle: producers should prioritize the use of organic waste and by-products as feedstock.
It is a stance endorsed by European Bioplastics, but, as von Pogrell pointed out, the land used to grow the renewable feedstock for the production of bioplastics is estimated to be 0.8 million hectares in 2022 and continues to account for only just over 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area of 5 billion hectares. Along the estimated growth of global bioplastics production in the next five years, the land use share for bioplastics will increase to still below 0.06 percent.
“In relation to the available agricultural area, this share is still minimal. Thus, there is no competition between the renewable feedstock for food and feed and the production of bioplastics” says von Pogrell, “Over 90 percent of the global agricultural area is used for pasture, feed, and food. This is also of crucial importance in the political debate regarding land used for bio-based industries.”
He ended by pointing to the effects of the implicit pushback by the EC bio-based plastics: “It doesn't need rocket science to figure out what the impact of poor legislation would have on the already observed migration of protection capacities from Europe to Europe to Asia; to know how investments into R & D and the jobs that go with it are certain to follow suit.”
It is therefore time that Europe stop drafting legislation that is liable to threaten the very existence of a highly innovative industry on the basis of misconceptions, he ended.