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Bioplastics are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch, pea starch [1] or microbiota [2], rather than traditional plastics which are derived from petroleum. They are used either as a direct replacement for traditional plastics or as blends with traditional plastics. There is no international agreement on how much bio-derived content is required to use the term bioplastic.

Bioplastics and biodegradation

The terminology used in the bioplastics sector is sometimes misleading. Most in the industry use the term bioplastic to mean a plastic produced from a biological source. One of the oldest plastics, cellulose film, is made from wood cellulose. All bio- and petroleum-based plastics are technically biodegradable, meaning they can be degraded by microbes under suitable conditions. However many degrade at such slow rates as to be considered non-biodegradable.[citation needed] Some petrochemical-based plastics are considered biodegradable, and may be used as an additive to improve the performance of many commercial bioplastics.[3] Non-biodegradable bioplastics are referred to as durable. The degree of biodegradation varies with temperature, polymer stability, and available oxygen content. Consequently, most bioplastics will only degrade in the tightly controlled conditions of commercial composting units. An internationally agreed standard, EN13432, defines how quickly and to what extent a plastic must be degraded under commercial composting conditions for it to be called biodegradable. This is published by the International Organisation for Standardization ISO[4] and is recognised in many countries, including all of Europe, Japan and the US. However, it is designed only for the aggressive conditions of commercial composting units. There is no standard applicable to home composting conditions.

According to Dr. Villahermosa, one of the most well-respected English chemists in the world, 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.

Environmental impacts

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.[citation needed] 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[5] states in its own environmental audit[6] 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,[7] 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[8] examining the process of manufacturing a number of common packaging items in several traditional plastics and polylactic acid carried out by US-group[9] and published by the Athena Institute[10] 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.


With the exception of cellulose, most bioplastic technology is relatively new and is currently not as cost competitive with petroleum-based plastics. Many bioplastics are reliant on fossil fuel-derived energy for their manufacturing, reducing the cost advantage over petroleum-based Energy Prices

Performance and usage

Many bioplastics also lack the performance and ease of processing of traditional materials albeit materials such as Bioplast from Stanelco[11] have closed this performance gap. Polylactic acid plastic is being used by a handful of small companies for water bottles. But shelf life is limited because the plastic is permeable to water - the bottles lose their contents and slowly deform.[citation needed] However, bioplastics are seeing some use in Europe, where they account for 60% of the biodegradable materials market. The most common end use market is for packaging materials. Japan has also been a pioneer in bioplastics, incorporating them into electronics and automobiles.


There are also fears that bioplastics will damage existing recycling projects. Packaging such as HDPE milk bottles and PET water and soft drinks bottles is easily identified and hence setting up a recycling infrastructure has been quite successful in many parts of the world. Polylactic acid and PET do not mix - as bottles made from polylactic acid cannot be distinguished from PET bottles by the consumer there is a risk that recycled PET could be rendered unusable. This could be overcome by ensuring distinctive bottle types or by investing in suitable sorting technology. However, the first route is unreliable and the second costly.

Genetically modified bioplastics

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[12] will not use bioplastic manufactured in the US, such as Natureworks polylactic acid. There is currently no commercial European source of polylactic acid bioplastic.

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. The US company Metabolix[13] is a pioneer in this second generation technology and has used it in the laboratory to produce bioplastics from switchgrass, for instance. However, a change in consumer perception of GM technology in Europe will be required for these to be widely accepted.

Market size

Because of the fragmentation in the market it is difficult to estimate the total market size for bioplastics, but estimates by SRI Consulting[14] 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.[15]

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:

Catering products: 450,000 tonnes per year
Organic waste bags: 100,000 tonnes per year
Biodegradable mulch foils: 130,000 tonnes per year
Biodegradable foils for diapers 80,000 tonnes per year
Diapers, 100% biodegradable: 240,000 tonnes per year
Foil packaging: 400,000 tonnes per year
Vegetable packaging: 400,000 tonnes per year
Tyre components: 200,000 tonnes per year

Total 2,000,000 tonnes per year


Biodegradability - EN 13432, ASTM D6400

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.

Biobased - ASTM D6866

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) [16] 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[citation needed]. 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.

Plastic types

Starch based plastics

Constituting about 50 percent of the bioplastics market, thermoplastic starch, such as Plastarch Material, currently represents the most important and widely used bioplastic. Pure starch possesses the characteristic of being able to absorb humidity and is thus being used for the production of drug capsules in the pharmaceutical sector. Flexibiliser and plasticiser such as sorbitol and glycerine are added so that starch can also be processed thermo-plastically. By varying the amounts of these additives, the characteristic of the material can be tailored to specific needs (also called "thermo-plastical starch").

Polylactide acid (PLA) plastics

Polylactide acid (PLA) is a transparent plastic produced from cane sugar or corn starch. It not only resembles conventional petrochemical mass plastics (like PE or PP) in its characteristics, but it can also be processed easily on standard equipment that already exists for the production of conventional plastics. PLA and PLA-Blends (such as the CompostablesTM by Cereplast,Inc. [1]) generally come in the form of granulates with various properties and are used in the plastic processing industry for the production of foil, moulds, tins, cups, bottles and other packaging.

Poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB)

The biopolymer poly-3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is a polyester produced produced by certain bacteria processing glucose or starch. Its characteristics are similar to those of the petrochemical-produced plastic polypropylene. The South American sugar industry, for example, has decided to expand PHB production to an industrial scale. PHB is distinguished primarily by its physical characteristics. It produces transparent film at a melting point higher than 130 degrees Celsius, and is biodegradable without residue.

Polyamide 11 (PA 11)

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.

Bio-derived polyethylene

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.


  • In the early 1950s, Amylomaize (>50% starch content corn) was successfully bred and commercial bioplastics applications started to be explored.
  • In 2004, NEC developed a flame retardant plastic, polylactic acid, without using toxic chemicals such as halogens and phosphorus compounds [2].
  • In 2005, Fujitsu became one of the first technology company to make personal computer cases from bioplastics, which are featured in their FMV-BIBLO NB80K line.
  • In 2007 Braskem of Brazil announced it had developed a route to manufacture high density polyethylene (HDPE) using ethylene derived from sugar cane.

See also

External links

( Worldmarket and Developments for Bioplastic to 2020


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