Billions are flowing into bioplastics as markets expand

CLEVELAND — In a world increasingly plagued by the ongoing damage that plastics manufactured in petrochemical plants have done to the environment, companies are investing billions of dollars to ramp up production of plastics made from natural, renewable materials that can be safely composted. become biodegradable under the right conditions.

Bioplastics have long been used in medical applications. The stitches you got after cutting onions with your hand were probably made of a bioplastic thread that dissolved harmlessly in your body.

But the emerging bioplastics industry sees a much greater role for materials made from corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other renewable materials in hopes of gaining a bigger share of a global plastic market worth nearly $600 billion.

For example, since large-scale production began in the 1950s, fossil fuels have made food safer to consume and vehicles safer to drive. Still, plastics are seen as one of the world’s biggest environmental threats, with their production responsible for the emission of millions of tons of greenhouse gases per year.

Of the 9 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled, studies show. The rest are buried in landfills, burned or contaminated land and waterways. The chemical structure of fossil fuel plastic means it can never completely disintegrate and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.

At present, bioplastic represents only 1% of global plastic production. If plastic made with fossil fuels is the huge Mall of America in Minnesota, bioplastic would be a 7-Eleven.

Companies and investors see opportunities. Data from i3 Connect shows that investments in bioplastic production reached $500 million in the first three months of 2022, surpassing the previous record of $350 million in the last quarter of 2021. The money comes in from both companies and venture capitalists.

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Zion Market Research estimates that the bioplastics market will grow from $10.5 billion in 2021 to approximately $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 makes a bioplastic called PHA using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil. The result is plastic pellets that manufacturers can use to mold products in the same way they use petrochemical plastic, Danimer CEO Stephen Croskrey said in an interview.

The expansion has made Danimer one of the largest PHA producers in the world.

Straws and plastic stirrers made from Danimer’s PHA are used in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and in large venues such as Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., Croskrey said.

“We have active development projects for just about anything you can think of,” he said.

Tests have shown that products made from Danimer’s PHA biodegrade in six months in marine environments and two years in soil, Croskrey said.

The other primary bioplastic sold today is PLA, polylactic acid, which is commonly produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugar cane. One producer 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 tons of bioplastic pellets annually at a facility in Blair, Nebraska.

NatureWorks is building a $600 million plant in Thailand that will increase production capacity by 50%, Leah Ford, the company’s global marketing communications manager, said in an interview.

The company’s “biggest visibility market,” Ford said, is compostable food items, such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers that, along with restaurant food waste, can be turned into a dark organic material to soil in gardens and on farms. This is important because food waste clogs recycling machines and contaminates recyclable petroleum plastics.

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Some Starbucks stores use disposable cups coated with PLA from NatureWorks, Ford said.

NatureWorks has become something of a game changer in the UK, where PG Tips, a big name in tea, has moved from polyester tea bags to bags made with cellulose and a thin layer of NatureWorks’ PLA that are fully compostable, Ford said.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal released a study in 2019 stating that petroleum-based polyester tea bags werehes out billions microplastic particles when submerged in hot water. About 60 billion cups of tea are consumed in the UK every year.

One of the criticisms of bioplastic made with corn and sugar is that it uses arable land on a hungry planet. Ford called that concern unfounded. NatureWorks uses sugar extracted from corn, while the rest of the kernels are used to produce sweeteners, ethanol, cooking oil and animal feed.

PLA, unlike PHA, is not easily biodegraded in nature. It must be mixed with food waste in industrial composters to biodegrade. When PLA is buried in landfills, it will eventually disintegrate, but that would likely take decades.

NatureWorks has partnered with PHA manufacturer CJ Bio to produce a bioplastic that is more easily biodegradable. The company, headquartered in South Korea, is expanding its plant in Indonesia and plans to build a major plant in the Americas, said Raj Kirsch, vice president of research and development at CJ Bio.

Mixing the two types of bioplastic “brings many value propositions to the final 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 are using biodegradability claims to make their products more attractive to consumers. But the term has been “misused, abused and overused because everything in the world is biodegradable given the right time and environment.”

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California, Narayan noted, has banned the use of the term “biodegradable” in marketing. The world needs to replace petroleum plastic with plastic materials that have been verified and certified as fully biodegradable, he said.

Narayan acknowledged that bioplastics are more readily biodegradable than petrochemical plastics, which can take centuries to disintegrate, shedding worrying microplastics. But the fact that PHA takes longer to break down in cold oceans and lakes than in temperate climates should not be sugared.

“It will take time, and you have to say that,” Narayan said.

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