Ask the Expert: Beyond Bioplastics
Plastics made from plants, plastics able to biodegrade, plastics that can do both – bioplastics are one of the most discussed inventions on the road to a world without plastic pollution. They were introduced as the type of material to replace conventional plastics – however, while offering potential, it turned out they are not the silver bullet to solve the problem.
We at traceless often get asked: Do you call your material a bioplastic? In short: We don’t! Even though traceless has many comparable properties to plastics and bioplastics, traceless goes beyond both categories, and marks a new generation of materials - free of plastic, and also free of bioplastic!
But do you ever wonder why - so, what the differences are between traceless and bioplastics? Or what the current market trend is? For all those questions (and much more) we’ve got you covered in this blogpost. Together with our Product Manager Philip Ortin, who is our expert especially when it comes to the market for plastic alternative materials, we will make a deep dive into the topic.
First: What are Bioplastics?
But first, let’s start at the beginning and have a look at what bioplastics precisely are. The general term bioplastics is widely used, but actually not officially defined and not very accurate, as it combines two different criteria that should be clearly distinguished:
bio-based plastics are plastics produced from renewable, plant-based feedstocks such as corn, potatoes, and sugarcane, or other biomass, rather than fossil fuels. It is important to note that the feedstock used to produce this plastic has no influence on its ability to be biodegraded or composted.
biodegradable plastics are plastics that can be broken down by living organisms into elements that are found in nature, such as CO2 or methane, water, and biomass. According to the standards EN 13432/14995, this means for plastics to disintegrate after three months and biodegrade after six months under industrial composting plant conditions (58°C). It is important to note that biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biobased, as they can be manufactured from renewable feedstocks or fossil fuels.
In other words, bioplastics can be biobased, biodegradable, or both. It is for this reason that the term “bioplastic” should never stand alone and why it is necessary to explicitly specify the plastic’s origin (biosourced or not) as well as end of life (biodegradable or not).
traceless goes beyond - Why, and How?
To understand how traceless differs from bioplastics, let’s look at the specific challenges these materials bring:
As for biobased plastics - the feedstock for most bio-based plastics are valuable food sources, and the large scale production of them contributes to the land-use change conflict. At traceless however, our materials are not only bio-based but bio-based on residues. To be precise, we use the leftovers from agricultural industry, so-called 2nd generation biomass. It means no additional plants need to be grown to produce traceless materials, and hereby they do not contribute to the land-use change conflict.
When it comes to biodegradable plastics - they need very specific conditions in order to degrade quickly. Most of them are certified for industrial composting according to the standard EN 13432 (min. 90% desintegration after 3 months), where degradation is tested under higher temperature (58°C). However, this means that when they end up in nature, they would degrade only very slowly, if at all, and still contribute to the plastic pollution problem. traceless materials go beyond that: They are degradable under natural conditions, for example on your home-compost, where they completely degrade in 2-9 weeks depending on their thickness. Thereby, they even exceed the highest certificate for compostable materials - the one for home compostable plastics (which would allow 90% desintegration after 6 months at ambient temperature - so 26 weeks!)
Regarding the technological scalability & resource efficiency: some bioplastics are made with a resource-intensive process, for example fermentation. Or the process makes use of potentially hazardous substances, that is the case for some cellulose based alternatives (e.g. Cellophane). Therefore, the scalability of these processes is limited - and the competitiveness in price is, too. traceless goes beyond: Our innovative process is simple, environmentally friendly and has high scale-up potential - for example through our use of natural polymers rather than the complex polymerization in the PLA process, and because of the high availability of our raw material.
bioplastics are still plastics: Most bioplastics contain polymers that are either chemically modified or synthetically polymerized. According to the plastic definition that was introduced in the EU Directive 2019/904 on single-use-plastics (see infobox below) these materials are officially considered a plastic, even if they might be more sustainable. traceless goes beyond - our materials do not fall under the directive because they are made from natural, unmodified biopolymers. This means that on a chemical level, traceless is not a synthetic, but a natural material.
So taken together, traceless goes beyond the current standards for plastic alternatives, and considers all impact indicators while being truly bio-circular. All of this sounds like a great solution, right? But in order to create an impact, it must be possible to reach the market…
Let's look at the market!
To get a better understanding of what the (bio)plastics market looks like at the moment, and give an outlook on what to expect, we have invited our expert Philip Ortin to the conversation.
Philip has a background in B2B marketing & sales in the chemical industry in various markets and for various applications, for example working for global adhesive solution manufacturer tesa. As our product manager, Philip is a very important link between customers and the different traceless teams, and perfectly understands the current market trends.
Thanks for joining us, Philip! To start, could you tell us a bit more about the market for plastics alternatives, and how it is expected to develop over the next few years?
Philip: At the moment, the market share for plastic alternatives is still in the very low single digit percentage. With a total capacity of around 2,4k tons in total, bioplastics made up for less then one percent of the total plastic production in 2021. But the capacities are expected to grow fast: they are expected to nearly double in 2022, reaching around 7,5k tons in 2026. The general growth trend I foresee will be double digit and strongly over-proportional – it will continue and even accelerate up to 2050, when all fossil virgin-based plastics will have to be replaced. More importantly however, is that the growth of most bioplastics will be mainly limited by the availability of sufficient production capacity, and fit of the alternatives, which most likely will not account for traceless materials.
Could you tell us a bit more about whether or not there is a clear shift to bioplastics happening on the plastics market already? Looking at the bigger picture, what role do sustainable plastic alternatives actually play regarding plastic pollution?
Philip: At the moment the conventional plastics market is making a shift towards a reuse, recycle, replace system. The market is very big and diverse, and the need to move away from fossil-based materials is so urgent that one alternative alone isn’t sufficient, we need effort from all sides. According to a recent study by Systemiq, substitution with paper and compostables have to replace about 17% of the global plastic production. Global plastic production is expected to double by 2040 - therefore, the urgency is high to implement a systemic change.
Where does this urgency to act come from?
Philip: Foremost because of the negative impacts of fossil-based plastics on the environment. However, the urgency has increased further since the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive came into force. And since it is not only fossil-based plastics which fall under the directive, but also most bioplastics, manufacturers, consumers, and politicians are looking for other alternatives. Many of the manufacturers and brand owners we talk to have set themselves ambitious sustiainability goals - but the system is complex, and it's challenging for even them to oversee all of the aspects. Still, they would like to be sure they don't contribute to plastic pollution with their products.
Where are the potentials of sustainable material alternatives? And does the market already differentiate between common biobased/biodegradable plastics, and biomaterials like traceless?
Philip: At least there is a clear difference from the regulatory side: Natural polymer based materials - also called "biomaterials" - do not fall under the EU SUPD. Thus, they play an important role in the shift in the plastics industry. This especially accounts in applications where recycling or reuse are practically not possible, and this is the case for many, many applications. Just think of candy bar wrappers, for which it isn’t possible due to their small size, or food packagings, inflight plastics and medical application where recyclates cannot be used due to hygiene and regulatory reasons. Another example would be plastics that automatically end up in the environment - microbeads in cosmetic products, brake pad or tyre abrasions, or plastic coatings of seeds, which by usage cannot be recovered. And these are only the obvious plastics - not speaking of hidden plastics in paper coatings, adhesives or inks – to name just a few examples.
Does this mean that the greatest demand for alternative materials on the market comes from the single-use application area?
Philip: Well, yes and no - at least we at traceless receive inquiries from all over the applications and industries. However, the majority comes from all kinds of packaging applications in food and non-food. But, there is a huge diversity of demands, from simple short-term packaging to high-end packaging fit to withstand high temperature demands and long shelf life requirements.
As soon as manufacturers embark on the journey to shift from plastics to a sustainable alternative - what are their expectations and requirements? And do you think a company like traceless can meet these expectations?
Philip: Most manufacturers and brands we talk to already considered common bioplastics, some already had experience, for example with PLA. In the face of the growing debate about bioplastics’ downsides, they often come to our first meetings with many question marks. Very understandable, as replacing plastics with the next problematic material is of course not in their interest. A material like traceless, where the different impact indicators have already been considered during the development of the technology, truly has potential to be a solution regarding all the sustainability aspects. Now, the challenge is to jointly bring these products to market - and we’re more than happy to see such a great demand and willingness to join us on this pioneering journey. Only by joining forces, can we make the biggest possible contribution to creating a world free of pollution and waste!