The term "biodegradable plastic" is often also used by producers of specially modified petrochemical-based plastics which appear to biodegrade. Traditional plastics such as polyethylene are degraded by ultra-violet (UV) light and oxygen. To prevent this process manufacturers add stabilising chemicals. However with the addition of a degradation initiator to the plastic, it is possible to achieve a controlled UV/oxidation disintegration process. This type of plastic may be referred to as degradable plastic or oxy-degradable plastic or photodegradable plastic because the process is not initiated by microbial action. While some degradable plastics manufacturers argue that degraded plastic residue will be attacked by microbes, these degradable materials do not meet the requirements of the EN13432 commercial composting standard.
The production and use of bioplastics is generally regarded as a more sustainable activity when compared with plastic production from petroleum, because it relies less on fossil fuel as a carbon source and also introduces less, net-new greenhouse emissions if it biodegrades. However, manufacturing of bioplastic materials is often still reliant upon petroleum as an energy and materials source. This comes in the form of energy required to power farm machinery and irrigate growing crops, to produce fertilisers and pesticides, to transport crops and crop products to processing plants, to process raw materials, and ultimately to produce the bioplastic.
Italian bioplastic manufacturer Novamont states in its own environmental audit that producing one kilogram of its starch-based product uses 500g of petroleum and consumes almost 80% of the energy required to produce a traditional polyethylene polymer. Environmental data from NatureWorks, the only commercial manufacturer of PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic, says that making its plastic material delivers a fossil fuel saving of between 25 and 68 per cent compared with polyethylene, in part due to its purchasing of renewable energy certificates for its manufacturing plant.
A detailed study examining the process of manufacturing a number of common packaging items in several traditional plastics and polylactic acid carried out by US-group and published by the Athena Institute shows the bioplastic to be less environmentally damaging for some products, but more environmentally damaging for others.
While production of most bioplastics results in reduced carbon dioxide emissions compared to traditional alternatives, there are some real concerns that the creation of a global bioeconomy could contribute to an accelerated rate of deforestation if not managed effectively. There are associated concerns over the impact on water supply and soil erosion.
Genetic modification (GM) is also a challenge for the bioplastics industry. None of the currently available bioplastics - which can be considered first generation products - require the use of GM crops. However, it is not possible to ensure corn used to make bioplastic in North America is GM-free.
European consumers are hostile to any products that are linked to the GM industry. As a result, some UK retailers such as Sainsbury's will not use bioplastic manufactured in the US, such as Natureworks polylactic acid.
There is also concern that the route from corn to bioplastics is not the most efficient. Looking further ahead, some of the second generation bioplastics manufacturing technologies under development employ the "plant factory" model, using genetically modified crops or genetically modified bacteria to optimise efficiency. However, a change in consumer perception of GM technology in Europe will be required for these to be widely accepted.
Because of the fragmentation in the market it is difficult to estimate the total market size for bioplastics, but estimates put global consumption in 2006 at around 85,000 tonnes. In contrast, global consumption of all flexible packaging is estimated at around 12.3 million tonnes.
COPA (Committee of Agricultural Organisation in the European Union) and COGEGA (General Committee for the Agricultural Cooperation in the European Union) have made an assessment of the potential of bioplastics in different sectors of the European economy:
Total 2,000,000 tonnes per year
The European Bioplastics trade group predicted annual capacity would more than triple to 1.5 million tons by 2011. BCC Research forecasts the global market for biodegradable polymers to grow at a compound average growth rate of more than 17 percent through 2012. Even so, bioplastics will encompass a small niche of the overall plastic market, which is forecast to reach 500 billion pounds globally by 2010.
The EN 13432 industrial standard is arguably the most international in scope and compliance with this standard is required to claim that a product is compostable in the European marketplace. In summary, it requires biodegradation of 90% of the materials in a commercial composting unit within 90 days. The ASTM 6400 standard is the regulatory framework for the United States and sets a less stringent threshold of 60% biodegradation within 180 days, again within commercial composting conditions.
The "compostable" marking found on many items of packaging indicates that the package complies with either of the two standards mentined above. However, the marking is not owned by either regulatory body but by third party trade associations representing companies making or selling biodegradable plastics. In Europe, this is European Bioplastics, in the U.S. it is the Biodegradable Products Institute.
Many starch based plastics, PLA based plastics and certain aliphatic-aromatic co-polyester compounds such as succinates and adipates, have obtained these certificates. Additivated plastics sold as fotodegradable or oxobiodegradable do not comply with these standards in their current form.
The ASTM D6866 method has been developed to certify the biologically derived content of bioplastics. There is an important difference between biodegradability and biobased content. A bioplastic such as high density polyethylene (HDPE) can be 100% biobased (i.e. contain 100% renewable carbon), yet be non-biodegradable. These bioplastics such HDPE play nonetheless an important role in greenhouse gas abatement, particularly when they are combusted for energy production. The biobased component of these bioplastics is considered carbon-neutral since their origin is from biomass.
Because of their biological biodegradability, the use of bioplastics is especially popular for disposable items, such as packaging and catering items (crockery, cutlery, pots, bowls, straws). The use of bioplastics for shopping bags is already very common. After their initial use they can be reused as bags for organic waste and then be composted. Trays and containers for fruit, vegetables, eggs and meat, bottles for soft drinks and dairy products and blister foils for fruit and vegetables are also already widely manufactured from bioplastics.
Non-disposable applications include mobile phone casings (NEC), carpet fibres (Dupont Sorona), and car interiors (Mazda). The French company, Arkema, produces a grade of bioplastic called Rilsan, which is being used in fuel line and plastic pipe applications. In these areas, the goal is obviously not biodegradability, but to create items from sustainable resources.
PA 11 is a biopolymer derived from natural oil. It is also known under the tradename Rilsan B commercialized by Arkema. PA 11 belongs to the technical polymers family and is not biodegradable. Its properties are similar than PA 12 although emissions of greenhouse gases and consumption of non-renewable resources are reduced during its production. Its thermal resistance is also superior than PA 12. It is used in high performance applications as automotive fuel lines, pneumatic airbrake tubing, electrical anti-termite cable sheathing, oil & gas flexible pipes & control fluid umbilicals, sports shoes, electronic device components, catheters, etc.
The basic building block (monomer) of polyethylene is ethylene. This is just one small chemical step from ethanol, which can be produced by fermentation of agricultural feedstocks such as sugar cane or corn. Bio-derived polyethylene is chemically and physically identical to traditional polyethylene - it does not biodegrade but can be recycled. It can also considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Brazilian chemicals group Braskem claims that using its route from sugar cane ethanol to produce one tonne of polyethylene captures (removes from the environment) 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide while the traditional petrochemical route results in emissions of close to 3.5 tonnes.
Braskem plans to introduce commercial quantities of its first bio-derived high density polyethylene, used in a packaging such as bottles and tubs, in 2010 and has developed a technology to produce bio-derived butene, required to make the linear low density polethylene types used in film production.