As the market begins to boom, billions are poured into bioplastics

CLEVELAND (AP) – In a world troubled by the continuing environmental damage caused by plastics manufactured at petrochemical plants, companies are investing billions of dollars to ramp up production of plastics made from natural, renewable materials that can be safely Can compost or biodegrade under the right conditions.

Bioplastics have long been used in medical applications. The stitches you received after hand-slicing an onion were probably made from a bioplastic thread that dissolved harmlessly into your body.

But the nascent bioplastics industry envisions a bigger role for materials made from corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other renewables in hopes of grabbing a larger share of the nearly $600 billion global plastics market.

Since mass production began in the 1950s, fossil fuel plastics have made food safer to consume and vehicles safer to drive, for example. Yet plastic is seen as one of the world’s major environmental hazards, with its production responsible for the emission of millions of tons of greenhouse gases each year.

Studies have shown that only 9% percent of the 9 billion tons of fossil fuel plastics produced since the 1950s have been recycled. The rest have been buried in landfills, burned or polluted lands and waterways. The chemical composition of fossil fuel plastics means that it can never fully decompose and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.

For now, bioplastics represent just 1% of global plastics production. If plastic made from fossil fuels is America’s giant mall in Minnesota, Bioplastics would be 7-Eleven.

Companies and investors see opportunities. Data from i3 Connect shows investment in bioplastics manufacturing reached $500 million in the first three months of 2022, up from a previous high of $350 million in the last quarter of 2021. The money is coming from both corporations and venture capitalists.

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Zion Market Research estimates the bioplastics market to grow from $10.5 billion in 2021 to around $29 billion in 2028.

Danimer Scientific is a company that is making a big bet on bioplastics with the recent expansion of its plant in Winchester, Kentucky, a Georgia-based firm that makes bioplastics called PHAs using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil. The result is plastic pellets that manufacturers can use to mold products in the same way they use petrochemical plastics, Danimer CEO Stephen Crossray said in an interview.

The expansion has made Danimer one of the largest PHA producers in the world.

Straws and plastic drink stirrers made from Danimer’s PHA are being used in large venues such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and Sophie Stadium in Inglewood, California, Crosray said.

“We have active development projects for almost anything you can imagine,” he said.

Testing has shown that products made from Danimer’s PHA can biodegrade in six months in the marine environment and in two years in the soil, Kroske said.

The other primary bioplastic sold today is PLA, polylactic acid, which is usually produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugarcane. One manufacturer is Minneapolis-based NatureWorks, a joint venture of Cargill, one of the largest private corporations in the world, and Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical. It is the world’s largest PLA company, capable of producing 150,000 metric tons of bioplastic pellets annually at a plant in Blair, Nebraska.

NatureWorks is building a $600 million plant in Thailand that will increase its production capacity by 50%, the company’s Global Marketing Communications Manager Leah Ford said in an interview.

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The company’s “largest visibility market,” Ford said, is compostable food service items such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers that, along with restaurant food waste, are used as a deep source to enrich the soil in gardens. can be converted into organic matter. Farming This is important because food waste clogs recycling machinery and contaminates recyclable petroleum plastics.

Some Starbucks stores use disposable cups with NatureWorks’ PLA, Ford said.

NatureWorks has become a game changer in the United Kingdom, where PG Tips, a big name in tea, has switched from polyester tea bags to bags made of cellulose and a thin layer of Natureworks PLA that is completely compostable, Ford said. .

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal released a study in 2019 showing that petroleum-based polyester tea bags leak billions of microplastic particles When submerged in hot water. About 60 billion cups of tea are consumed annually in the UK.

One of the criticisms of bioplastics made from corn and sugar is that it uses up arable land on a starving planet. Ford called that concern unfounded. NatureWorks uses sugar extracted from corn while the rest of the kernels are used to produce sweeteners, ethanol, cooking oil and animal feed.

PLA, unlike PHA, does not readily biodegrade in nature. It needs to be mixed with food waste in industrial compost to biodegrade. When buried in a landfill, PLA will eventually decompose, but this can take decades.

NatureWorks has partnered with PHA manufacturer CJ Bio to produce a bioplastic that can more easily biodegrade. The South Korea-headquartered company is expanding its plant in Indonesia and plans to build a bigger plant in the US, said Raj Kirsch, vice president of research and development at CJ Bio.

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The blending of the two types of bioplastics “brings a lot of value proposition to the final final product,” Kirsch said in an interview.

Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, has worked with Cargill in the past to help with PLA production.

Narayan said companies are using biodegradability claims to make their products more attractive to consumers. But the term is “misused, misused and overused because everything in the world is biodegradable given the right time and environment.”

California, Narain said, has banned the use of the word “biodegradable” in marketing. He said that the world needs to replace petroleum plastic with plastic material which has been verified and certified as completely biodegradable.

Narayan acknowledged that bioplastics are easier to biodegrade than petrochemical plastics, which can take centuries to decompose, leaving the worrisome microplastics removed. Yet the fact that PHA takes longer to break down in cold oceans and lakes than in temperate climates should not be sugarcoated.

“It will take time, and you need to say that,” Narayan said.