To drop-in or not to drop-in, that is the bioplastics question for 2020

Companies have announced commercial developments for bioplastics in 2020 involving both bio-based versions of conventional plastics (drop-in) and new biopolymers. The year has also brought some official EU guidance on different types of bioplastics and their applications. So now is a good time to review these important developments and analyse their implications. 

The demand for alternatives to conventional petrochemicals and plastics is being driven, at least in part, by commitments to achieve a zero carbon economy by 2050. So companies are focussing on making these products with a much lower carbon footprint. One way to do this is to use raw materials derived from sugars, vegetable oils and biogenic wastes instead of oil or gas. 

2019 saw an increasing focus on the Circular Economy and recyclability of plastics. So questions were inevitably asked about the circularity of bioplastics.  Doubts about the sustainability of composting biodegradable polymers and the difficulties of separating out small quantities of new materials in recycling streams were raised. These discussions, which are damaging to the prospects of non drop-in bioplastics, have continued to play out in 2020.

In the context of recycling, drop-in bioplastics can be sorted and processed with their fossil counterparts, as they are identical, which is a key advantage.  Vynova announced early in 2020 that they would be offering ‘bio-attributed’ PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and Royal DSM said that they will be transitioning to bio-based feedstock for their Dyneema® fibre products on a mass balance basis. Both of these companies will be taking advantage of the simultaneous processing of biomass with conventional materials, with the bio content being assigned to one particular product. This low investment approach is increasingly being accepted for drop-in bioplastics.

In the past, an additional driver for developing completely new bio-based polymers has been their biodegradability. But composting, as an end of life option, is no longer favoured in Europe. Earlier in the year, an in-depth study commissioned by DG Environment, indicated that recyclability rather than compostability should be the most important parameter for both products and packaging. Exceptions are limited to applications where the use of compostable plastic could provide other benefits, such as increasing the collection of organic waste.  So biodegradable plastics are recommended for organic waste bin liners, coffee capsules and some other niche applications but not much else. Experts advising the European Commission on the rules that will form the basis for financing projects as part of the Green Deal, also gave only a limited endorsement to bioplastics early in the year.

So the message is that the industry should pivot towards recyclable bioplastics. But what should producers of new biopolymers do when faced with resistance from the sector that will have to deal with another type of plastic? The answer is that they should confront the problem and develop their own recycling arrangements if necessary.   Avantium, currently scaling up PEF (polyethylene furanoate), its bio-based alternative to PET (polyethylene terephthalate) for beverage bottles, engaged early with the European PET bottle platform (EPBP) on sorting and recyclability. They received interim approval for a market penetration for PEF of up to 2%, based on the tolerance of the mixed recyclate. TotalCorbion, a leading manufacturer of PLA (polylactic acid) previously promoted for its compostability, just announced that it is now looking for partners to work on mechanical and chemical recycling of PLA trays, bottles and drinking cups. 

So the emerging answer to the question; ‘To drop-in or not to drop-in’ is that drop-in bioplastics are already on-board with the Circular Economy and saw increased take up in 2020. On the other hand, manufacturers of non drop-in bioplastics need to focus on recycling arrangements, at least in Europe, or risk the fate of the famous character* who asked a similar question.


*Actually Shakespeare's character Hamlet said ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’ and it didn't end well. 

Published: 3 December 20

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