In 2017 the world produced about 2.05 million tonnes of bioplastic:
- 58 percent was used for packaging, both flexible and rigid
- 11 percent was used for textiles
- 7 percent was used for automotive and transportation
- 7 percent was used for consumer goods
- The remainder was used for agriculture, construction and electronics
It seems like plastic is “having its moment.”
Unfortunately for plastic manufacturers, the moment isn’t a positive one.
In April, British Prime Minister Teresa May released a plan to ban all single-use plastics in the United Kingdom, such as plastic straws, in an effort to protect the environment.
In early June, more than 40 non-government organizations released a document urging Canadians to increase the recycling rate of plastic. They want 85 percent of single-use plastic items, like water bottles, to be recycled.
And this summer, a French man is attempting to swim across the Pacific Ocean to call attention to the massive patch of plastic floating in the Pacific, estimated at three times the size of France.
One potential solution to the billions of tonnes of plastics that wind up in landfills, lakes and oceans, is bio-plastic.
In basic terms, bio-plastics are packaging and products made from carbohydrate-rich plants like corn and sugarcane.
Bioplastics are viewed as more ethical than traditional petroleum-based plastics because they are manufactured from sustainable feedstocks and some bioplastics break down rapidly after disposal.
Research and Markets, a consultancy, has predicted that the global market for bioplastics will be worth $43 billion by 2022, compared to $17 billion in 2017.
“Europe will drive the global market of bioplastics due to their increased adoption in Italy, United Kingdom, and Germany,” Research and Markets said last September. “The Asia Pacific region will also drive the market of bioplastics because of increasing number of huge investments being made by the global major players in the region owing to presence of huge renewable feedstock.”
A market size of $43 billion is significant, but what does it mean for the ag industry?
Will a bioplastic boom push up prices for corn and other ag commodities?
For now, the answer is “no”.
European Bioplastics, an industry group, said the bioplastics trade uses a tiny portion of the world’s agricultural production.
Even if the bioplastics industry explodes, that amount will remain small.
In 2017, the global production capacity of bioplastics was 2.05 million tonnes, European Bioplastics said. That translates to about two million acres of cropland, or 0.016 percent of the agricultural land on earth.
If bioplastics production doubled, it would only be four million acres or 0.032 percent of global agricultural land.
In comparison, the global production of biofuels requires about 125 million acres of agricultural land.
As of 2017, bioplastics represented about one percent of the 320 million tonnes of the plastic produced annually.
“Even if we were to increase (the bioplastics market) 10-fold, the impact that’s going to have on corn prices … is pretty minimal,” said David Grewell, agricultural engineering professor at Iowa State University, who studies how to produce plastics from corn and soybeans.
It’s also possible the industry could develop new feedstocks for bioplastics, such as crop residue, which would reduce the amount of crop acreage needed for bioplastic production.
Bioplastics could soon grab a larger portion of the plastics marketplace, but a major barrier remains.
The industry is small and the technology is relatively new, so the cost of manufacturing bioplastics is higher than petroleum-based plastics.
However, the price gap isn’t huge.
“With rising demand and more efficient production processes, increasing volumes of bioplastics on the market and oil prices expected to rise again, the costs for bioplastics will soon be comparable with those for conventional plastic prices,” European Bioplastics said.
If prices are comparable, more companies may choose to package their product with bioplastic. Plus, government regulations, like a tax on conventional plastic, could tip the scales in favour of bioplastics.
Grewell, though, said regulation isn’t the best option.
It’s preferable if consumer demand drives the change.
If more people want their frozen pizza wrapped in bioplastic, more companies will adopt bioplastic packaging for that pizza.
“I think it’s going to be driven by the public,” said Grewell, director of the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites at Iowa State.
That’s because it’s becoming harder for people to ignore plastic waste and its impact on the planet.
“You see it on the beaches. You see it in the oceans…. People have an easier way to look at (it) and figure out what are going to be the long-term effects, because they can physically see it.”
Still, it’s unlikely that bioplastics will solve the world’s plastic problem, Grewell added.
“A significant amount of the bioplastics being produced are not biodegradable,” he said. “We need to keep that in mind. Even though it’s bio-based doesn’t mean it’s biodegradable.”