CLEVELAND — In a world increasingly concerned about the lingering damage that plastic, made in petrochemical plants, has had on the environment, companies are investing billions of dollars to increase production of plastics made from natural, renewable materials. that can be safely composted or can biodegrade under the right conditions.
Bioplastics have long been used in medical applications. The stitches he received after cutting his hand while chopping onions were likely made from a bioplastic thread that dissolved harmlessly into his body.
But the fledgling bioplastics industry envisions a much larger role for materials made from corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other renewable materials in hopes of grabbing a larger share of a nearly $600 billion global plastics market.
Since large-scale production began in the 1950s, fossil fuel plastics have made food safer to eat and vehicles safer to drive, for example. However, plastics are considered one of the world’s main environmental threats and their production is responsible for the emission of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year.
Of the 9 billion tons of fossil fuel plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9% percent has been recycled, studies show. The rest has been buried in landfills, burned, or has polluted the land and waterways. The chemical structure of fossil fuel 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 fossil-fuel plastic is Minnesota’s sprawling Mall of America, bioplastics would be a 7-Eleven.
Companies and investors see opportunities. Data from i3 Connect shows investment in bioplastics manufacturing hit $500 million in the first three months of 2022, topping the previous high of $350 million in the final quarter of 2021. The money is coming from both corporations and non-profits. venture capitalists.
Zion Market Research estimates that the bioplastics market will grow from $10.5 billion in 2021 to about $29 billion in 2028.
Danimer Scientific is one 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 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.
Plastic straws and drink stirrers made with Danimer’s PHAs are used at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and large venues like Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California, Croskrey said.
“We have active development projects for just about anything you can imagine,” he said.
Tests have shown that products made with Danimer’s PHAs 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, usually produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugar cane. One producer is Minneapolis-based NatureWorks, a joint venture of Cargill, one of the world’s largest private corporations, 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 plant in Blair, Nebraska.
NatureWorks is building a $600 million plant in Thailand that will increase its production capacity by 50%, Leah Ford, the company’s global marketing communications manager, said in an interview.
The company’s “highest visibility market,” Ford said, is compostable foodservice items such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers that, along with restaurant food waste, can be turned into a dark organic material for enriching soil in gardens and on farms. That’s important because food waste clogs recycling machinery and contaminates recyclable petroleum-based plastics.
Some Starbucks stores use NatureWorks PLA-lined disposable cups, Ford said.
NatureWorks has become something of a game changer in the UK, where PG Tips, a big name in tea, has switched from polyester tea bags to bags made with cellulose and a thin layer of NatureWorks PLA that they are fully compostable, Ford said.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal published a study in 2019 that said petroleum-based polyester tea bags filter billions of microplastic particles when immersed in hot water. Around 60 billion cups of tea are consumed annually in the UK.
One of the criticisms of the bioplastic made from corn and sugar is that it uses arable land on a hungry planet. Ford called that concern unfounded. NatureWorks uses the sugar extracted from the 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 waste in industrial composters to biodegrade. When buried in landfills, PLA will eventually disintegrate, but that will likely take decades.
NatureWorks has partnered with PHA manufacturer CJ Bio to produce a bioplastic that can biodegrade more easily. The South Korea-based company 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.
Combining the two types of bioplastics “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 with PLA production.
Narayan said companies are using biodegradability claims to make their products more attractive to consumers. But the term is “misused, abused, and overused because everything in the world is biodegradable at the right time and in the right environment.”
California, Narayan noted, has banned the use of the term “biodegradable” in marketing. The world needs to replace the plastic in petroleum with plastic materials that have been verified and certified as fully biodegradable, he said.
Narayan acknowledged that bioplastics are easier to biodegrade than petrochemical plastic, which can take centuries to break down, shedding worrying microplastics along the way. However, the fact that PHA takes longer to break down in cold oceans and lakes than in temperate climates should not be sugar-coated.
“It will take time, and you have to say that,” Narayan said.