CLEVELAND (AP) — In a world increasingly troubled by the ongoing damage plastic — made in petrochemical plants — has had on the environment, companies are investing billions of dollars to ramp up production of plastics made from natural and renewable materials that can be safely composted or can biodegrade under the right conditions.
Bioplastics have a long history of use in medical applications. The stitches you got after cutting your hand chopping onions were probably made of a thread of bioplastic that harmlessly dissolved in your body.
But the nascent bioplastics industry is eyeing a much bigger role for materials made from corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other renewable materials in hopes of grabbing a bigger share of the industry. a global plastics market worth nearly $600 billion.
Since large-scale production began in the 1950s, fossil fuel-based plastics have made foods safer to eat and vehicles safer to drive, for example. Yet plastic is considered one of the world’s biggest environmental threats, with its production responsible for the emission of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases every year.
Studies have shown that of the 9 billion tonnes of fossil plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled. The rest was buried in landfills, burned or polluted land and waterways. The chemical structure of fossil plastic means that it can never fully disintegrate and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.
For now, bioplastic represents only 1% of global plastic production. If plastic made with fossil fuels is the massive Mall of America in Minnesota, bioplastics would be a 7-Eleven.
Companies and investors see opportunities. Data from i3 Connect shows that investment in bioplastics manufacturing reached $500 million in the first three months of 2022, surpassing the previous high of $350 million in the last quarter of 2021. The money comes from both companies and venture capitalists.
Zion Market Research estimates that the bioplastics market will grow from $10.5 billion in 2021 to some $29 billion in 2028.
Danimer Scientific is a company making a big bet on bioplastics with a recent expansion of its plant in Winchester, Kentucky. The Georgia-based company manufactures a bioplastic called PHA using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil. . The result is plastic pellets that manufacturers can use to mold products the same way they use petrochemical plastic, Danimer CEO Stephen Croskrey said in an interview.
This expansion made Danimer one of the largest PHA producers in the world.
Plastic straws and drink stirrers made from Danimer’s PHA are used in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and in large venues like Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., Croskrey said.
“We have active development projects for just about anything you can imagine,” he said.
Tests have shown that products made from Danimer’s PHA can biodegrade in six months in marine environments and two years in soil, Croskrey said.
The other primary bioplastic sold today is PLA, polylactic acid, typically produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugar cane. One of the producers is Minneapolis-based NatureWorks, a joint venture between Cargill, one of the world’s largest private companies, and Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical. It is the largest PLA company in the world, capable of producing 150,000 metric tons of bioplastic pellets per year at a facility in Blair, Nebraska.
NatureWorks is building a $600 million factory in Thailand that will increase production capacity by 50%, Leah Ford, the company’s head of global marketing communications, said in an interview.
The company’s “most visible market,” Ford said, is for compostable foodservice items such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers which, along with restaurant food waste, can be converted into a dark organic matter to enrich the soil in gardens and on farms. This is important because food waste clogs recycling machines and contaminates recyclable petroleum plastics.
Some Starbucks stores are using PLA-lined disposable cups from NatureWorks, Ford said.
NatureWorks has changed the game in the UK, where PG Tips, a big name in tea, switched from polyester tea bags to fully compostable NatureWorks cellulose tea bags and a thin layer of PLA, Ford said.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal published a study in 2019 that found petroleum-based polyester tea bags release billions of microplastic particles when soaked in hot water. Around 60 billion cups of tea are consumed each year in the UK.
One of the criticisms of bioplastic made from corn and sugar is that it uses up arable land on a starving planet. Ford called this concern unfounded. NatureWorks uses sugar extracted from corn while the rest of the grains are used to produce sweeteners, ethanol, cooking oils and livestock feed.
PLA, unlike PHA, does not readily biodegrade in nature. It must be mixed with food scraps in industrial composters to biodegrade. Once buried in landfills, PLA will eventually disintegrate, but that would likely take decades.
NatureWorks has partnered with PHA manufacturer CJ Bio to produce a bioplastic that can biodegrade more easily. The company, headquartered in South Korea, is expanding its plant in Indonesia and plans to build a large plant in the Americas, said Raj Kirsch, vice president of research and development at CJ Bio.
Mixing the two types of bioplastic “brings a lot of value propositions to the end product,” Kirsch said in an interview.
Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, has worked with Cargill in the past to help produce PLA.
Narayan said companies use biodegradability claims to make their products more appealing to consumers. But the term is “misused, misused and overused because everything in the world is biodegradable at the right time and in the environment”.
California, Narayan noted, has banned the use of the term “biodegradable” in marketing. The world must replace petroleum plastic with plastic materials that have been verified and certified as fully biodegradable, he said.
Narayan acknowledged that bioplastics are easier to biodegrade than petrochemical plastics which can take centuries to disintegrate, releasing concerning microplastics along the way. Still, the fact that PHA takes longer to break down in cold oceans and lakes than in temperate climates shouldn’t be sugarcoated.
“It will take time, and you have to say it,” Narayan said.