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Bioplastics industry gathers pace in Australia

By: Peter Gosnell
24 January, 2011

It might sound wildly futuristic but producing plastic from plants is already an established industry and while it’s at present a niche sector, the short-term growth prospects are exceptional.

At the recent K-2010 plastics and rubber show in the German city of Dusseldorf, attendees heard that annual bioplastic production capacity reached 430,000 tonnes in 2009.

More recently, an October 13, 2010 paper published by the Society of Plastics Engineers estimated that global demand would reach 750,000 tonnes per annum by 2015, an increase of 75%.

In Europe, which consumes more than 40% of global bioplastics production, bullish estimates from the European Bioplatics Group see global production reaching 1.5 million tonnes per annum by 2011.

In the scheme of things, it’s still not a lot. Total global plastic production is currently running at 230 million tonnes per annum and Australia’s plastics manufacturing industry alone produced 1.525 million tonnes in 2008.

But bioplastics is an industry in its infancy, a fact acknowledged by the paper’s authors, who argue that blending bioplastics with polyolefins and other plastics offers the best strategy at this early stage.

"One of the key challenges faced by these products is the fact that density skews the environmental footprint on a life-cycle basis in several applications,’’ the Society of Plastics Engineers said in its paper.

"Other important challenges include performance compared to traditional plastics, issues related to contamination of recycling streams, biodegradation under controlled conditions (requiring commercial composting infrastructure not available in most consuming countries), cost competitiveness, and – most importantly – knowledge of the producers of these resins of application/product development.

"All of these issues have limited the use of these products to perception-based consumption in applications driven by brand owners seeking a green image."
According to the Society of Plastics Engineers while this represents a good beginning, it does not nurture a sustainable business model.

Moreover, use of food-based crops reduces the sustainability of these products and restricts their production to a few regions.

"New developments in nonfood-based platform technologies, such as algae and cellulosics, will further improve sustainability," it said.

Fair point. The practice of using arable land to grow crops for bio-fuels is already controversial given concerns about global food security. There’s no point bulldozing the Amazon in the name of green plastics.

The Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has been examining commercial opportunities for bioplastics for years.

In 2008/09, the CSIRO’s manufacturing, materials and minerals group – which includes bioplastics – allocated some of its  $167 million budget to examining the commercial potential of bioplastics and listed one of its objectives as: "To achieve a 15 per cent increase in Australia’s annual export revenue of polymer nanocomposites by 2015, and capture 25 per cent of the plastics market with a new generation of clean and green bioplastics by 2030."

CSIRO scientist Dr Stuart Bateman said the market is becoming more receptive to the bioderived and biodegradable plastics as rising oil prices make petroleum-based plastics more expensive.

"Manufacturing industries nowadays are not just looking to materials with a structural purpose, but also for functional properties, such as fire resistance, conductivity or protection from UV degradation," Dr Bateman said.
It’s early days for bioplastics, but clearly there is great promise and potentially, great opportunity.

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