Plastics made from plants rather than petroleum are gaining market share around the globe. Derived from renewable biomass such as cornstarch, soy protein and cellulose, bioplastics are used in almost every polymer product category, from medical devices to building materials.

While bioplastics grab market headlines today, they are not new. Henry Ford used soy-based paints, enamels and molded plastics for the steering wheel, dashboard and knobs in his first Model T.

Celluloid, a polymer made by treating plant-based cellulose, was invented in the 1860s. It was used in hairpieces, buttons, jewelry and other items as an ivory replacement. But the early plastic was highly flammable and replaced with petro-based polymers in the 1950s.

When cheap petro-plastics took over the polymer marketplace more than a half-century ago, environmental issues were not a consumer priority. Today, concerns about pollution, landfill demands and the energy used to manufacture disposable plastics, are driving consumer demand for renewable products.

Citizens have reason for concern. Americans annually use more than 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps and discard more than 3.3 million tons of these products, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although more than one-third of plastic bottles are recycled, less than 7 percent of all plastics are recycled.

Bioplastic pioneers

With citizens’ increasing awareness of environmental issues, bioplastics are experiencing a renaissance. More than 300 types, made from plant-based starches, are on the worldwide market, according to an AURI-sponsored study conducted by Russell Herder, a research and public relations firm in Minneapolis. (see story on page 5)

By 2025, bioplastics could reduce petro-plastic consumption by 15 to 20 percent because of the potential in automotive, medical and electronic markets, according to a 2007 Helmut Kaiser study.

Ford is using soy-based foams in some autos and Toyota plans to replace 20 percent of plastics in its autos with bioplastics by 2015. John Deere started using bioplastics in some exterior panels a decade ago and plans to develop more biomaterial parts.

NatureWorks, headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn., is the world’s first and largest bioplastics manufacture. The company produces Ingeo resins used in clothing, packaging, disposable dinnerware, diapers and other products. Generally, bio-resins cost 10 to 20 percent more than petroleum resins.

The Telles company in Clinton, Iowa makes Mirel, a corn-sugar based bioplastic used in food packaging and agricultural mulch, and a plastic resin for injection molding, film and sheet extrusion and thermoforming.

Global production of bioplastics is increasing from 360,000 metric tons in 2007 to a projected 2.3 million metric tons by 2013, according to the AURI report. In 2007, the United States bioplastics production capacity was 260,000 tons, 80 percent of it biodegradable, and capacity is expected to reach 1.4 million tons this year.

PLA production will increase the most, “driven by a more competitive price structure and greater availability,” a 2010 Freedonia Group study finds. “Starch-based plastics will have a good outlook as a result of improved resin blends and applications in such areas as compostable yard and kitchen bags, as well as food service items such as plates, bowls and cutlery.”

Favored for packaging

The biggest market for bioplastics is containers and packaging, such as beverage and shampoo bottles. In North America, 21 percent of consumers say making packaging more environmentally friendly is the top issue food companies should address, according to a 2009 green food-packaging survey by Environmental Leader magazine. Only 4 percent said the top priority should be more convenient packaging.

Increasingly, consumers are concerned about toxins in petro-plastics as well as pollution, global warming, landfills and foreign oil dependency. By 2013, packaging made from renewables will make up 32 percent of the global market, up from 21 percent in 2009, according to a 2009 Pike Research report. Plastic is currently used in 35 percent of all packaging, which is a $429 billion market globally and could surpass $500 billion within five years.

Nestle is planning to replace petro-plastic liners in some Purina pet food bags with a cornstarch-based liner. Coca Cola has introduced the PlantBottle, made of 30 percent biomass. Frito-Lay tried selling all flavors of its SunChips in compostable bags but, after consumers complained the stiff bag was too noisy, the plant-based package is only used for the original flavor. However, Frito-Lay is working on an improved eco-friendly package.

Target’s website promotes its ‘green commitment’ stating it tries to source packaging that is recyclable, biodegradable, made with renewable resources, or manufactured with sustainable practices. Walmart is using corn-based PLA in vegetable and fruit trays and bags.

Federal incentives

Legislative mandates and policy changes around the globe are also creating markets for bioproducts.

The 2002 federal farm bill mandated that federal agencies purchase bioproducts over their petroleum-based counterparts if they are available and equal in quality and price.

The BioPreferred program gives federal agencies access to a catalog of hundreds of bioproducts, such as lubricants, industrial oils, starch-plastic cutlery, food containers, soaps, cleaners, fuel additives, coolants, fertilizers, inks, building material and paint strippers.

Gradually more products are being added to the “preferred” list, defined as commercial or industrial goods (non-food or feed) made with a significant amount of biological, forestry or agricultural products.

Bio-challenge

Despite consumer interest and government incentives, bioplastics still make up only 1 percent of the 230 million tons of plastic used today. For bioplastics to succeed in the marketplace, they must meet the same cost and performance standards as petro-plastics, the AURI study found.

Bioplastics can be too brittle for some applications and can have problems withstanding heat or cold. “We are working with clients to resolve those issues with emerging technologies,” says Dennis Timmerman, AURI project director.

“New bioplastics are in development,” and as research advances, they will become more common in household and industrial products, Timmerman says.

The AURI study summarized the primary reasons for growth: large retailers, such as Target and Walmart are demanding bioplastic packaging; consumers are increasingly concerned about nonrenewable petro-based materials, manufacturers want to develop more sustainable raw material sources, bioplastics are improving, government procurement programs favor biobased products, and bioplastics are decreasing in cost. If oil prices continue to climb, the demand for renewable products could be even greater.