Solid Waste & Recycling


Bioplastics touted as the leading edge of change

In the light of last year's developments, the Industry Association IBAW draws a positive picture of the bioplastics...

In the light of last year’s developments, the Industry Association IBAW draws a positive picture of the bioplastics sector. In 2005, the European-oriented association welcomed a record number of new members. Remarkable is the fact that not only leading manufacturers and processors of bioplastics are joining the association, but also major brand owners and agricultural feedstock companies. According to the association, the increasing importance of this technology is due to several factors. Improved functionality of bioplastics and their growing market lead to more interest. Moreover, the risks created by imports and increasing costs for fossil raw materials play as much a role as climate change, whose negative effects are becoming increasingly pronounced. In consequence, the plastics industry is putting more and more emphasis on the use of renewable raw materials.

Due to last year’s price hikes of 30 to 80 per cent for conventional plastics, many companies are looking for alternative products. Some bioplastics products have already reached full competitiveness. In general, the price difference between materials made of renewable raw materials and standard plastic materials has decreased considerably. In 2005, sugar and starch were less expensive raw materials than mineral oil. With regard to the optimized manufacturing processes and improved cost-competitiveness of the future, the long-term perspectives for bioplastics are promising. The number of manufacturers of bioplastic products is strongly increasing worldwide and more competition will give further momentum to this development, according to the industry association.

The increased market interest is as well due to the numerous achievements in technology and product development. In some important areas of application, bioplastics have achieved the quality of conventional products made of mineral oil. Of key interest are applications in the packaging sector, in agriculture and in the disposal sector. In 2005, major manufacturers of mobile phones, computers and audio/video entertainment devices reported progress in the use of biomaterials. A new trend is the combination of commercialized biomaterials that create new functional characteristics and special benefits. Furthermore, development efforts are focused on multi-layer films with altered characteristics that could for example improve the barrier characteristics of packaging materials.

“In view of the long development cycles for plastics that usually take 20 to 30 years from invention to widespread application, we must look for alternatives in time,: explains IBAW Chairman Harald Kaeb.

However, the bioplastic industry faces considerable risks, since bioplastics still only have niche markets. Experts estimate that today’s bioplastics have a technological potential of about 10 per cent of the present plastic market of 40 million tonnes in Europe. In order to exploit this potential, investments of several billion euros will be required, especially for building larger manufacturing plants. In this context, the IBAW stresses the importance of framework conditions. Compared to renewable energies and biofuels, there is less support for products made of renewable raw materials. A first measure to promote the technology is the exemption given to biopackaging in the German Packaging Ordinance of May 2005. The association is asking for further measures that will pave the way for a widespread market introduction.

According to Mr. Kaeb, the bioplastics industry is at the leading edge of a development that will spread to other oil-dependent industry sectors in the coming decades. Renewable raw materials from agriculture are a good solution: They can be grown in countries that do not possess crude oil resources. They are climate-friendly because of their reduced carbon dioxide emissions. With a yield of two to three tonnes per hectare, millions of tonnes of plastics could be produced on farmland avoiding set-aside programs in Europe.

“If we want, we can do differently,” says Kaeb. “What we need right now is a larger avenue for our products and more start-up support so that the opportunities offered by bioplastic technology can be fully exploited as soon as possible.”

The IBAW is an international association of the bioplastics and biodegradable polymers industry. The association is supported by companies from the agricultural, chemical and plastics industries, scientific institutes and innovative users.

[Postscript: The potential for bioplastics was specifically highlighted by U.S. President George Bush in his January State of the Union address as part of an urgent strategy to lower dependence on oil imported from unstable regions of the globe. — ed.]

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