The search for sustainable packaging solutions has been intensifying as countries grapple to meet their net-zero goals. One promising avenue involves researchers exploring the potential of bacteria and enzymes to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (commonly found in packaging products) into recyclable materials. Simultaneously, other innovative methods have emerged, utilizing biomasses to create materials that not only rival traditional plastics in texture and functionality, but also boast enhanced eco-friendliness.
This article will highlight some of the innovative strategies that companies are using to manufacture viable plastic alternatives from a wide range of renewable resources, and discuss some of the drawbacks that hinder their widespread adoption.
Unlike conventional plastics that are derived from petroleum, bioplastics are crafted from renewable biomass sources, a diverse array of materials that include vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, sawdust, and even recycled food waste.
The use of these agricultural resources not only ensures a sustainable supply chain but also reduces the dependence on finite petroleum reserves, fostering a circular and regenerative economy. When disposed of correctly, bioplastics also decompose at a faster rate than their petrochemical counterparts, with some taking only months compared to plastics which can take years. This addresses the persistent problem of plastic waste accumulation and its adverse impact on the environment.
Moreover, the production of bioplastics emits fewer greenhouse gases compared to petrochemical-based plastics, contributing to a lower carbon footprint. A report by S&P Global sheds light on the environmental benefits of polyamide 410 — a bioplastic derived from castor oil — which has been deemed carbon-neutral, where the amount of carbon dioxide generated during its manufacturing process is fully offset by the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during the growth of the castor bean plant.
The bioplastics industry is growing rapidly and is projected to reach USD 18.7 billion by 2031. However, despite this remarkable progress, bioplastics still represent a mere fraction of their conventional counterparts, emphasizing the need for continued advocacy, research, and collaboration to encourage widespread adoption.
Notable bioplastic startups
Here are a few companies that have been driving innovation in this sector and leveraging our natural resources to create plastic alternatives.
RWDC Industries (plant-based oils)
This Singaporean-based biotech startup produces medium-chain-length polyhydroxyalkanoate (mclPHA) biopolymers sourced from plant-based oils through a microbial fermentation process. The subsequent biodegradable polymer, known as Solon, is an ideal alternative for single-use plastics, including drinking straws, utensils, and plastic bags.
Most notably, Solon can fully biodegrade in soil, water, and marine conditions within a matter of weeks without leaving behind harmful microplastics. Moreover, it has been certified by TÜV AUSTRIA, confirming that its material can biodegrade in any natural environment and eliminating the need for specialized composting facilities. RWDC is paving the way for a more environmentally responsible and circular approach to plastics consumption.
Chuk (bagasse from sugarcane)
This company has found a solution to two pressing issues by transforming sugarcane waste, known as bagasse, into a range of biodegradable tableware, including plates, bowls, and trays that have become increasingly common as takeaways and food delivery have become more common.
Bagasse — a fibrous material derived from the residue left after sugarcane is crushed to extract its juice — represents a significant agricultural waste stream in India, with approximately 100 million tons produced annually. Chuk’s bagasse-based tableware products have proven to be an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, breaking down in a backyard compost heap within three months.
As India grapples with the generation of about 4 million tons of plastic waste each year, this innovation presents a dual advantage: tackling agricultural waste while offering a sustainable solution to reduce plastic pollution.
Sea6 Energy (seaweed)
Seaweed, with its remarkable growth rate, minimal water consumption, and negligible impact on food production, stands as a compelling green alternative to conventional plastics. Its rapid growth without the need for fertilizers or pesticides underscores its status as a sustainable resource.
One noteworthy breakthrough comes from Sea6 Energy, which has harnessed the potential of seaweed to develop food-grade bioplastic wraps that will compost in a few months when discarded in the environment. These innovative wraps offer a sustainable alternative to traditional plastic wraps which, although useful for preserving food freshness, often pose recycling challenges due to their thin nature.
However, despite these environmental benefits, seaweed packaging currently faces challenges to widespread adoption. Manual processing contributes to higher production costs compared to conventional plastics. Moreover, to meet global demand, seaweed farming would require substantial technological improvements to increase its scalability.
Despite these obstacles, the growing body of research and continuous innovation underscores the increasing potential of seaweed as a greener alternative to plastic wraps.
Styrofoam’s slow degradation rates and hazardous manufacturing processes have posed environmental challenges. To combat this, Ecovative has developed a biodegradable alternative that combines two unlikely elements: hemp hurd — the woody inner layer of the hemp stalk — and mycelium — the root of fungi like mushrooms.
Known as Ecovative’s Mushroom Packaging, this eco-friendly solution can be used for a variety of use cases, like corner protectors for furniture and IT equipment, or packaging for wine. The production process involves cultivating pure mycelial fibers in vertical farms, allowing Ecovative to meet customized orders within approximately three weeks.
This blend has yielded mycelium-based products that not only match the performance of traditional materials like polystyrene foam but also boast the added advantage of biodegradability. Within a mere 45 days, these products completely compost into soil nutrition, exemplifying their commitment to environmental responsibility and circularity.
As the mushroom packaging market is expected to grow from USD 57.9 million in 2022 to USD 115.7 million in 2032, Ecovative stands poised to capitalize on this trend with its innovative products.
Challenges of bioplastics
Despite their promise as eco-friendly alternatives to traditional plastics, there are still some drawbacks to this new technology.
One significant obstacle lies in the higher production costs compared to conventional plastics, stemming from lower production capacity and the prevailing low price of crude oil. To achieve cost reductions, bioplastic products must be manufactured at scale, but they are not generating significant demand, as companies may still prefer the cost-effective option of using traditional plastic.
Moreover, the successful decomposition of some bioplastics relies on specialized industrial composting facilities, and their inclusion in regular recycling streams may lead to contamination issues. Certain bioplastics require specific conditions involving carbon dioxide and water for complete degradation, making improper waste management and disposal infrastructure potential obstacles to their breakdown. Compounding the problem is the limited availability of proper composting facilities in certain countries.
Another misconception is that all bioplastics are automatically biodegradable. In reality, some bioplastics can be just as persistent and environmentally harmful as conventional plastics if not appropriately managed. Some examples include bio-polyethylene (made from feedstocks) and bio-polyamides (derived from natural fats and oils). Merely leaving them to compost in landfills without sufficient moisture and oxygen flow may result in an extended decomposition period.
While bioplastics do decompose faster than traditional plastics, they can still take up to a year to break down under natural conditions. This poses environmental risks if they are not adequately managed and disposed of.
A complete replacement of traditional plastics with bioplastics may not be feasible. Instead, the most effective solution to combat plastic pollution lies in reducing overall plastic consumption.
To truly make a significant impact on plastic waste management, it requires the collective effort of companies, individuals, and governments alike. Moreover, a comprehensive approach to environmental education plays a crucial role in reducing plastic usage. Educating and raising awareness about the impact of plastic waste on the environment can empower individuals to make conscious choices and contribute to the greater cause of reducing plastic pollution.
By combining innovative solutions like bioplastics with concerted efforts to minimize plastic consumption and promote eco-consciousness, plastic pollution may no longer be an insurmountable challenge.