Book Cover The state-of-the-art on Bioplastics

The state-of-the-art on Bioplastics

Products, markets, trends, and technologies
Jan Th. J. Ravenstijn

January 2010


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Author Jan Ravenstijn

The Author

Jan Ravenstijn obtained his MSc in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering from the Delft University of Technology. He has 33 years experience in the chemical industry (Dow Chemical and DSM) of which 15 years in executive global R&D positions in engineering plastics, epoxy resins, and elastomers in three different countries. He has started a biopolymers platform at DSM. In 2009 he was Visiting Professor Biopolymers at the Eindhoven University of Technology and became consultant to international biopolymer companies in America, Asia, and Europe.


The use of synthetic polymers has grown exponentially during the past decades and is forecasted to grow from 250,000 kt/annum at the beginning of this century to > 1,000,000 kt/annum by the year 2100, due to a growing world population and a growing prosperity. In such case we would need 25% of the current oil production for making plastics alone by the end of this century.

However, limited fossil resources, increased cost of fossil resources, public concern about climate change,and important technology breakthroughs in White Biotechnology are significant drivers to move from fossil-based polymers to biobased polymers in both low and high value polymer categories and markets. It is expected that the bio-route is cheaper than the fossil-route at oil prices above 50 $ /barrel.

Although the bio-based polymer business is only 1,000 kt/annum or 0.4% of the total polymer business at the end of 2009,annual growth rates are predicted to be at 20% till 2020, based on currently known technologies. New technology developments and related product introductions could further boost these numbers.

Initial market interest in bio-based plastics came from producers of one-timeuse applications or of applications that generate a lot of plastic waste. Biodegradability was considered to be the important property here, since every year we waste 3.7 billion plastic cups, 365 billion plastic bottles, and 3,650 billion plastic bags. Still, the focus shifts slowly, but surely from biodegradable to bio-based to counter climate change. Although biodegradation is a useful property in some applications, uncontrolled biodegradation is a wasteful end-of life option.

Today there are many more high performance durable bio-based thermosets and thermoplastics than biodegradable plastics, while the volume of bio-based thermosets is larger than the volume of bio-based thermoplastics. The cost / performance balance of many of these materials is quite competitive already, while for others work is done on white biotechnology (W ve II feedstock, process technology, metabolic engineering)and on economies of scale to achieve economic sustainability.

Investment plans for the next 5 years already quadruple current production capacities of bio-based plastics. Currently about 20 different bio-based polymer families are commercial already,while another 6 are at pilot scale.About half of them are bio-based versions of well known traditional polymers, while the other half are new to the market.

The early thermoplastic bio-based polymer families TPS, PLA, PHA, and PBS have an installed global capacity of about 435 kt/annum at the end of 2009 with capital investment plans to extend that with another 1,250 kt/annum during the next decade. Today there are also 8 bio-based polyamide product families on the market, while at least 5 others are being developed. A similar development is going on in aliphatic polycarbonates, albeit that these are in an earlier stage of development.

Four major chemical companies and one agricultural company developed and commercialized bio-based polyols for polyurethane production. So far, this has been the largest bio-based plastic on the market, albeit that the final PU often is only partly bio-based. The application possibilities of these bio-based polyols rapidly increase due to improved functionalization technologies.

Bio-based polymers not only replace existing polymers in a number of applications, but also provide new combinations of properties for new applications. Some examples are a 100% bio-based aliphatic polycarbonate with the mechanical properties of traditional PC and the optical properties of PMMA for functional optical films for flat panel displays, biodegradable plastics for use in care centers (hospitals, nursing houses), airlines and big hotels in combination with a new integral waste management system, PHA for biomedical applications, super-strong PHA fibers (> 1 G Pa), PLA specialties for electronics and automotive, and a whole range of new bio-based monomers that provide new functionalities to thermosets and thermoplastics.

If “dangerous” climate change is to be avoided, the CO 2-equivalent emissions per capita need to be reduced by >80% between 2000 and 2050 despite economic developments in the world. This calls for major changes in the way we do things. Energy sources should become anything but fossil-based (wind, tidal, nuclear, solar, biomass), while for chemical purposes, including polymers, we should rely on the short CO 2 cycle, i.e. generate no more CO 2 than you consume. If we achieve this, it will take over 100 years to reach a CO 2 level in the atmosphere from before the industrial revolution.

Required technology advancements to develop the bio-based plastics market are in the areas of Wave II feedstock (bio waste stream, cellulose based), White Biotechnology processes, new bio-based monomers and polymers, additives (plasticizers, stabilizers, nucleating agents, etc.), process aids, natural fibers, and polymer processing.

The significance of an entirely new value chain that is being established, presents a challenge for previously unassimilated industries like the agricultural industry and the polymer industry. Even where some companies have both in house, they are traditionally neither used nor organized to work together. Today we see that several joint ventures have been formed to help this integration for ward and to leverage the potential synergies.

A full review on all bio-based monomers and polymers, also the ones not mentioned in this executive summary, can be found in the report, where also questions on related markets, investment plans, trends, expectations, new opportunities,issues,and technologies are discussed.



Defining the playing field.

What are the current markets and market expectations
for bio-based plastics?

  • Biocompostable and biodegradable plastics. Durable bio-based thermoplastics.
  • Durable bio-based thermosets.
  • Natural fibers.

Will bio-based polymers provide new functionalities or will they
just replace existing fossil resource based polymers?

  • Aliphatic polycarbonate copolymers for engineering applications.
  • Bio-based plastics for a new integral waste treatment system.
  • PHA for biomedical applications.
  • Superstrong PHA fibers.
  • PLA specialties for electronics and automotive.
  • Bio-based monomers.

Why is a successful market entrance of bio-based
polymers more likely today?

  • Economics.
  • Environmental.
  • Technology.

Which technology advancements are required
for bio-based polymers?

  • White Biotechnology: feedstock developments.
  • White Biotechnology: process technology. 
  • New bio-based polymer product developments. 
  • Additive technology. 
  • Natural fibers.
  • Polymer processing technology.

What is the importance of the interface between White
Biotechnology and Polymer Material Technology?

What are the social, economic, and technical issues
and how are they addressed?

  • Feedstock competition with the food chain.
  • Limited supply of bio-based monomers and bio-based polymers.
  • Sustainability of a bio-based polymers business > cost/performance balance.
  • Gene modification. 
  • Multiple interpretation of eco-effectiveness. 
  • Human discipline.
  • Integration of a new value chain.

Concluding remarks.



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