Plastic pollution has reached alarming levels, threatening the health of the majority of life on our planet. The visible accumulation of plastic waste in oceans, waterways, and fields has garnered significant attention from scientists, media, and the public for decades. More recently, the accumulation of non-visible plastics (e.g., micro- and nano-plastics) has been recognised as potentially having even more severe consequences for ecosystems. In the quest for sustainable alternatives, bioplastics, in particular biodegradable plastics, offer the hope that we can preserve plastic’s valuable place in the global economy while eliminating the damage caused by common types of single-use plastic.
However, bioplastics are not as recent an innovation as they may seem. In fact, bio-sourced polymeric materials have existed for centuries, and bio-sourced plastics were first commercially mass-produced as early as 200 years ago before being replaced by plastics derived from fossil resources due to market demand.
This leads us to question what the bioplastics of the 19th century lacked that fossil-based plastics offered – and what research and development is now underway to enable bioplastics to meet modern-day demands.
Focusing on biodegradable plastics, this article will explore the composition and history of bioplastics and look at some of the demands shaping the future of sustainable plastics; current success stories in the commercialisation of biodegradable plastics; and the regional regulatory changes and initiatives that are helping to encourage the shift from fossil-based plastics to bio-sourced or biodegradable alternatives.
Understanding Bioplastics and Biodegradable Plastics
To comprehend the potential of biodegradable plastics, it is crucial to grasp their fundamental nature. First, we must define the terms ‘bio-sourced plastic’, ‘bioplastic’ and ‘biodegradable plastic’.
The term ‘bio-sourced plastics refers to all plastics made from renewable raw materials; aka, non-fossil plastics that have been made using plants, algae, or other biological sources.
Biodegradable plastics refers to plastics that, at the end of their useful life, can be broken down or decomposed by the action of living organisms such as bacteria. Some petrol-based plastics may be enriched with biodegradable additives to make biodegradation possible, so it is not necessarily true that all biodegradable plastics are strictly bio-sourced.
Biodegradable is not the same as compostable. Biodegradable means that an object can be biologically broken down. Compostable means that the process will result in compost. Though all biodegradable plastics can be biologically broken down, they do not typically result in useful compost.
The term bioplastics is often used to refer to both types of plastic: bio-sourced and biodegradable. This article will focus on biodegradable plastics from bio-sourced origins.
The three main types of biodegradable plastics available today are as follows:
- Starch-based plastics, derived from renewable resources such as cornstarch or potatoes. These materials offer excellent biodegradability and can be used in various applications, including packaging, disposable cutlery, and agricultural films. They are cost-effective and widely available, making them an appealing packaging choice.
- Cellulose-based plastics utilise plant fibres, such as wood pulp or cotton, to create biodegradable materials. These plastics have gained attention for their strength, versatility, and potential to replace traditional petroleum-based plastics in packaging, textiles, and consumer products. Their renewability and biodegradability make them an attractive option.
- Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are biodegradable polymers produced through bacterial fermentation using carbon sources. PHAs exhibit remarkable versatility and potential in various applications, including packaging, agriculture, and medical devices. They are biocompatible, renewable, and can be tailored to meet specific requirements, contributing to their growing popularity in the biodegradable plastics industry.
A Brief History of Plastics & Bioplastics
The use of renewable resources for synthesising plastics dates back centuries. Ancient Egyptians used gelatine and albumin, derived from animal and vegetable sources, as sticking agents, while Mesoamericans used natural rubber from rubber trees to create religious statuettes.
The turning point in the chemistry of polymeric materials occurred in the first half of the 19th century when, by accident, Charles Goodyear discovered the process of vulcanisation, which transforms liquid natural rubber into a stable and solid plastic material. This enabled the production of the first stable and functional plastic materials.
In 1855, John Wesley Hyatt developed celluloid, a synthetic substitute for ivory, by modifying and stabilising cellulose. Celluloid began to be commercially produced in 1869 and found various applications, such as in billiard balls and photographic film. Viscose, a polymeric material used in the textile industry, was later derived from cellulose by Hilaire de Chardonnet in 1884 as an affordable alternative to natural silk.
In 1907, Leo Baekeland, a Belgian chemist, combined phenols with formaldehyde to create a mouldable plastic called Bakelite. This material could be shaped under controlled pressure and temperature and offered smooth surfaces, heat and impact resistance, and solvent resistance. Bakelite was widely used for its insulating properties in manufacturing telephones, switches, radios, and kitchenware.
During the early 20th century, driven to market demand for plastic products for a wider range of applications, and in a wider variety of shapes and textures, the industry saw a global shift towards the use of oil as the primary raw material for plastic production. This was partially enabled by the development of better oil extraction techniques, particularly oil drilling, and advancements in oil refinement techniques in the 1930s. For the first time, different industries were able to use different fractions of oil for specific purposes; the lighter, gaseous fractions, including ethylene, were used in the production of polyethylene, one of the first industrial applications of refined oil in the plastics industry.
Throughout the 20th century, most plastics were derived from refined petroleum fractions. It is estimated that around 4% of each barrel of oil sold was used for plastic production until around a decade ago. With their high production speed, low cost and highly customisable properties, plastics displaced paper, glass, and wood in many everyday applications. Their lightness, flexibility, ease of handling, and ability to be coloured made them crucial elements in the packaging sector, while their light weight, affordability and customisable properties saw their applications expand into high-tech sectors like electronics, aeronautics, and medicine.
As a result of this surge in industrial production and demand, global fossil-based plastic production would increase from 1.35 million tons at the end of World War II to nearly 50 million tons in the 1970s. This upward trend continued throughout the latter 20th century and into the beginning of the 21st century, with persistent global demand for plastics and the exploration of new consumer markets driving production.
In 2020, it was estimated that over 97% of the world’s plastics were derived from fossil resources, primarily oil, while bioplastics made up only 3% of the overall plastic supply.
Plastics & Bioplastics in the Present Day
Plastics have become inseparable from our daily lives and have undeniable value in the supply chain of almost every industry, but the ecological damage caused by single-use, non-degradable plastics is undeniable and can be devastating.
Change is necessary, and bioplastics offer an obvious solution. But 19th century bioplastics could not possibly meet the needs of the modern plastics industry, which is reliant on the ability to produce advanced products with highly customisable properties. The modern plastic ecosystem requires a range of materials versatile enough that it can be applied in fields ranging from food packaging to aerospace.
As such, despite more than a decade of commercial availability and a rapid rate of R&D to improve their properties, modern biodegradable plastics have yet to reach a competitive level with fossil-fuel-based plastics. There is currently a troubling disconnect between the current state and adoption readiness of commercial biodegradable plastics, and the urgency with which we must tackle the plastics problem. This urgency is reflected in the aggressiveness of regulatory efforts by regional governments to eliminate single-use plastics.
In 2020, the World Economic Forum released a report that called for a global ban on single-use plastics by 2025. In 2022, the EU announced a ban on single-use plastics, including plastic straws, cutlery, and stirrers. Various nations have enforced their own regulations and bans in line with these aims, and – to varying degrees – implemented initiatives to encourage the adoption of biodegradable plastics. These will be explored later in this article.
To bridge the gap between the current state of biodegradable plastic commercialisation and the time pressure to eliminate non-degradable plastics, critical R&D is being undertaken at a rapid pace to develop the structure and properties of biodegradable plastics, as well as new testing standards, application development, and commercialisation and waste management strategies. The successful displacement of conventional plastics with biodegradable alternatives relies on collaboration between stakeholders across the value chain.
Market Status for Bioplastics
Recent years have seen industry players invest more in research and development, product innovation, and marketing activities in the field of bioplastics. This is largely due to increased demand from diverse sectors, expected to boost market growth in the foreseeable future.
One key factor is increased global investment in bioplastics production, including from major global players in the chemical industries such as BASF SE and The Dow Chemical Company.
Increasing regulations restricting the sale of single-use plastics, particularly in Europe and North America, are expected to stimulate further growth in the bioplastics market. Increased environmental awareness among consumers and stringent regulations by regional government could generate a larger market share for bioplastics, as industries look for sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics.
A report by Coherent Market Insights, ‘Bioplastics Market 2022–2030’, estimated the value of the bioplastics market in 2021 at $1 billion (approx. £809 million). The growth rate of the bioplastics market was said to be around 14.8%, with the value expected to reach $3.5 billion (approx. £2.8 billion) by 2030.
Biodegradable Plastics Success Stories
To date, the most commercially successful applications for biodegradable plastics have been in food packaging, food service ware such as disposable cups and utensils, and gardening products.
Food packaging is the largest application for biodegradable plastics, accounting for about 60% of the market.
Below are some notable commercial success stories.
US-based NatureWorks produces Ingeo, a type of biodegradable plastic made from corn. Ingeo is used in a variety of food packaging products, including bags, straws, and utensils. The company’s market value is currently estimated at £1.1 billion.
Biome Bioplastics, Warwickshire, UK, produces Mater-Bi, a type of biodegradable plastic made from agricultural waste. Mater-Bi is used in a variety of food packaging products, including bags, straws, and utensils. The company’s market value is estimated to be around £160 million.
Disposable cups and utensils
PLA Biodegradable Products
PLA Biodegradable Products is a US-based company that produces PLA, a type of biodegradable plastic made from corn. PLA is used in a variety of disposable cups and utensils, including those used at fast-food restaurants and coffee shops. The company’s market value is estimated to be around £400 million.
Eco-Products, also based in the US, produces a variety of biodegradable products, including disposable cups and utensils. The company’s market value is estimated to be around £800 million.
Swedish-based Biobag produces a variety of biodegradable gardening products, including plant pots and mulch. The company’s market value is estimated to be around £400 million.
Soil3, US, produces a type of biodegradable plastic made from agricultural waste for use in plant pots and mulch. The company’s market value is estimated to be approx. £160 million.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Other application success stories have been seen in the medical and construction industries. As the demand for sustainable alternatives to single-use plastics continues to grow, we can expect to see significantly more commercial successes with biodegradable plastics.
Biodegradable Plastics Research & Development
The majority of biodegradable plastics R&D publicised in recent years has focused on identifying new organic sources from which these plastics can be derived.
By developing a wide range of bio-sources for plastics, this R&D hopes to improve the sustainability of production and enable the development of bioplastics with varying compositions, properties and applications.
Though this article cannot hope to present an exhaustive list of all biodegradable plastics R&D projects recently completed or ongoing, a sampling of research projects publicised from 2018–2022 is presented in Table 1 below.
It is clear from this sampling that advancing the field of biodegradable plastics requires the engagement of academia, industry, and research institutes. By pooling resources, expertise, and research efforts, stakeholders around the world can accelerate innovation, and drive commercialisation.
Regional Trends in Sustainable Plastics
Efforts toward plastic waste reduction and the adoption of biodegradable plastics vary across countries and regions. While some regions lead the way in implementing effective plastic reduction measures, others face challenges in transitioning to more sustainable practices.
Single-use plastic regulation in the UK
In the UK, we’ve seen the government take steps toward reducing single-use plastics, though not as quickly or aggressively as some other nations. In 2018, the UK government introduced a tough ban on microbeads in personal care products; in 2020, it restricted the supply of single-use plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds; and in April 2022, a tax of £200 per tonne was imposed on plastic packaging manufactured in, or imported into, the UK that does not contain at least 30% recycled plastic.
In 2021, the UK government ran a competition under Innovate UK for R&D projects to award funding for sustainable plastic packaging, awarding grants of between £200,000 and £4 million per winner.
It was announced in January 2023 that the UK government will impose a ban on polluting single-use plastics in England, including single-use plastic dishes, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of cups and food containers. The ban will be introduced in October 2023, after which these products will not be available to buy from any business in England.
Speaking on the ban, UK Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said, “We all know the absolutely devastating impacts that plastic can have on our environment and wildlife. We have listened to the public and these new single-use plastics bans will continue our vital work to protect the environment for future generations.”
The UK government stated its expectation that banning these items will have a significant impact on reducing plastic waste and littering in England. Plastic cutlery, for instance, was in the top fifteen most littered items in the country by count in 2020.
Following further evidence, the government is also considering measures around other commonly littered plastic items, including wet wipes, tobacco filters, and sachets.
Regions leading the way in plastic waste reduction
Some of the regions most recognised to be leading the way in tackling plastic waste and adopting biodegradable plastics at the regulatory level are:
The European Union (EU)
The European Union has been proactive in tackling plastic waste through the introduction of landmark legislation. In 2019, the aforementioned Single-Use Plastics Directive banned several single-use plastic items in the EU, encouraging the use of alternative materials; no wonder, then, that the products this legislation restricted have become some of the biggest biodegradable plastic success stories.
Since 2019, many EU member states have worked to align their national regulations with these directives, setting ambitious targets for plastic waste reduction and supporting innovative new solutions through research funding and investment.
Canada has demonstrated a strong commitment to reducing plastic waste. In 2021, the country declared plastic as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, providing the government with additional regulatory powers to address plastic pollution.
Canada has also introduced extended producer responsibility (EPR) programmes, aiming to shift the responsibility of managing plastic waste from the government and consumer to the manufacturer. These efforts have paved the way for increased adoption of biodegradable plastics and sustainable packaging solutions in the region and trading countries.
Costa Rica has emerged as a global leader in environmental sustainability, including the reduction of plastic waste. The country has set ambitious goals to become single-use plastic-free by 2021 and carbon-neutral by 2050.
The Costa Rican government has implemented bans on single-use plastics in many regions, leading to the widespread adoption of biodegradable alternatives. This commitment to sustainability from a nation with a smaller economic footprint has garnered international recognition and inspired similar initiatives worldwide.
Japan has actively promoted the adoption of biodegradable plastics in various industries. The country has implemented strict regulations and incentives to encourage the use of biodegradable materials. Government support, combined with consumer demand for sustainable solutions, has driven the widespread adoption of biodegradable plastics in packaging, agriculture, and consumer products.
While progress is being made globally, some regions still face challenges in reducing plastic waste and adopting biodegradable alternatives. Factors such as limited infrastructure, lack of awareness, and economic constraints may hinder the transition.
As the urgency to address plastic pollution grows, biodegradable plastics offer a promising solution. The landscape of biodegradable plastics continues to evolve through advancements in materials, innovative applications, and collaborative research efforts.
Because of the sheer volume of plastic waste generated by each mass-produced single-use plastic product, even relatively slight improvements – the replacement of one chocolate bar producer’s wrappers with a biodegradable alternative, for example – could make a significant and rapid difference to the extent of the plastic waste crisis.
Change may be incremental and appear slow from the outside, but each product replaced translates to waste reduction – and most of us stand the chance of seeing in our lifetimes, if not the total elimination of fossil-fuel-based plastics, then at least a solution to the massive and devastating generation of non-degradable plastic waste seen in recent decades.
As an R&D funding specialist, Grantica is keen to see HMRC fund the growth of the UK’s bioplastics industry through the R&D tax credits scheme and accelerate these improvements. While it is known that tax credits have been awarded for some bioplastics projects (e.g. Biome was awarded a tax credit of £131,000 for its 2021 biotechnology research), no public data is available on the total amount of HMRC funding awarded to bioplastics research.
Speaking on the rate of biodegradable plastics R&D in the UK and globally, Mohamed Dafea CEng MIMechE, co-founder of Grantica Ltd, stated, “Achieving net-zero carbon goals in the UK will not be possible without our policy makers pushing for industries such as bioplastics to develop and evolve. This is no longer an issue for future generations, as our current generation is already grappling with the global effects of plastic pollution and climate change.”
”Whilst the government has promoted some competitions in the UK for bioplastics, this is nowhere near enough,” he added. “We need to incentivize advancements through post-funding schemes (such as R&D tax relief) that empower and enable more British innovators and companies to take on research risks.”