Bioplastics, where is the market heading?

Bioplastics, where is the market heading?

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The urgency that society is placing on our industry to move towards more sustainable solutions has driven the development of a particular type of materials, called bioplastics. In this type of materials, we seek to migrate towards renewable sources, we seek biodegradability, or both. We have been working to develop materials that reduce our dependence on petroleum, but that can also be composted or biodegraded, in order to close the cycle.

Bioplastics, by definition, are materials that can be based on renewable or non-renewable sources, and may or may not be biodegradable. It is possible, for example, to have bio-based materials, such as bio-PE, that are not biodegradable. It is also possible to have materials based on non-renewable sources, such as BASF's Ecovio grade, which is, however, compostable. And it is also possible to have materials such as PLA, which is bio-based and biodegradable.

However, the eagerness of consumers to migrate to more sustainable solutions and the inappropriate use by some suppliers of bioplastics have led our society to believe that the materials are going to be a "silver bullet" against pollution. And this is a mistake. Bioplastics are certainly a valuable material in the circular economy, but they are not the solution to pollution problems. And it is wrong to make customers think that, by making packaging from bioplastics, we will automatically solve pollution problems.

Bioplastics have their niche market, they offer some benefits, and under proper composting conditions they can biodegrade. However, it is wrong to fall into "I am corn and not plastic" statements, as we see in some commercials. These materials are still plastics and their degradation, which may or may not occur, depends on very specific conditions and their end-of-life destination.

The correct use of this type of materials depends on having adequate access to information, avoiding "greenwashing" and achieving adequate regulation, as well as having systems for end-of-life use (such as industrial composting units) that guarantee the promise that these materials will be reintegrated into nature.

Current status and prospects

Currently, bioplastics still account for less than 1% of the more than 367 million tons of plastics produced annually. However, unlike plastics from non-renewable sources, the demand for and production of bioplastics continues to grow. This growth is driven by an increase in demand, combined with the evolution of increasingly sophisticated applications and products.

According to market data compiled by EuropeanBioplastics in cooperation with the nova-Institute, global bioplastics production capacity will increase from 2.42 million tons in 2021 to around 7.59 million tons in 2026. In this scenario, the 2% mark would be exceeded for the first time. PBAT, PBS and bio-based polyamides are the materials responsible for this spectacular growth.

Currently, biodegradable plastics as a whole, including PLA, PHA, starch blends and others, account for more than 64% (over 1.5 million tons) of global bioplastics production capacity. Production of biodegradable plastics is expected to increase to almost 5.3 million by 2026 due to strong development of polymers, such as PBAT (polybutylene adipate terephthalate) and PBS (polybutylene succinate), but also steady growth of polylactic acids (PLA).

Non-biodegradable bio-based plastics together account for about 36% (more than 865,000 tons) of the global bioplastics production capacity. These also include drop-in solutions such as bio-based PE (polyethylene) and bio-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate), as well as bio-based PA (polyamides). Their relative share is expected to decline further to just over 30 percent by 2026. However, in absolute numbers, bio-based polymer production capacities will continue to increase over the next five years to around 2.3 million tons.

While bio-based PET production capacities continue to decline, the focus has shifted to the development of PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a new polymer that is expected to enter the market in 2023. PEF is comparable to PET but 100% bio-based. And it is said to exhibit superior thermal and barrier properties, making it an ideal material for beverage, food and non-food packaging.

Applications and regional production

Bioplastics are used in an increasing number of markets, from packaging, "catering" products, consumer electronics, automotive, agriculture/horticulture and toys to textiles and several other segments. Packaging remains the largest market segment for bioplastics with 48% (1.15 million tons) of the total bioplastics market in 2021. However, the application portfolio continues to diversify. Segments, such as automotive and transportation or building and construction, are still on the rise with growing capacities for functional polymers.


With a view to regional capacity development, Asia further strengthened its position as the main production center with almost 50% of the bioplastics currently produced in the region. Currently, almost a quarter of the production capacity is still located in Europe. However, the share of Europe and other world regions will decline significantly over the next five years. In contrast, Asia is expected to exceed 70% by 2026.

The land used to grow renewable feedstock for bioplastics production is estimated to be 0.7 million hectares in 2021 and still represents only slightly more than 0.01% of the global agricultural area of 5 billion hectares. Along with the estimated significant growth in global bioplastics production over the next five years, the share of land use for bioplastics will, however, still increase to below 0.06%. This clearly shows that there is no competition between renewable feedstock for food, cereals and bioplastics production.

Biodegradation standards

Compostability claims on plastic products are hardly verifiable by the consumer. In this case, certification becomes essential to achieve transparency, and proper communication through certification logos.

The EN13432 standard, for example, describes that a product can be destined for industrial composting, and that all its components (such as lids, labels, adhesives and/or packaging waste) are compostable. Within this standard, chemical tests are performed to understand the content and potential presence of heavy metals. Biodegradability under controlled composting conditions, measuring oxygen consumption and CO2 production. Under this standard, at least 90% of the organic material must be converted to CO2 within 6 months. In three months, it is important to verify disintegration, which implies that the material must pass through a 2 mm mesh, and no more than 10% of the original material must remain. An ecotoxicity test is also performed, examining the effects of the resulting compost on plant growth.

It is recommended that brand owners or large surface areas ask distributors for their product certification and demand the certification number. This ensures high product safety and also allows the use of certain brands, making the information more transparent for the end user.

Contamination by bioplastics

One of the main challenges in the use of bioplastics is that there is no special category to identify them within the recycling stream. It is possible that these types of materials, especially those that are biodegradable, can become confused within the established recycling stream of materials, contaminating them. In fact, in Europe and the United States, alarms have already been raised in the recycling guilds against the use of bioplastics, since they can end up contaminating the use of PET bottles, for example, or flexible films.

It is also important to understand that, although the use of bioplastic compounds with other conventional plastics can reduce the carbon footprint and dependence on non-renewable sources, in general they are mixtures of materials, something against which the Ellen McArthur Foundation has warned us within the guidelines of the new circular economy of plastics.

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