When fossil resources will have practically all been depleted, there will simply be no alternative to bioplastics, argues Hasso von Pogrell. But at the moment, they remain a niche market, despite the rapid increase in production of plant-based bottles.
Hasso von Pogrell is managing director at European Bioplastics, the association representing the interests of Europe’s fast-growing bioplastics’ industry. He spoke to EurActiv's editor Frédéric Simon. Click here to read a related news article.
How widely are bioplastics being used currently in Europe? Are we talking still about a niche market?
Compared to the total plastics market, it is of course still a rather niche market, but it is indeed a fast-growing market.
Just recently, we published some new data on global production capacities, and there you can see that by 2016, our forecast goes to almost 6 million tonnes, far larger than what it is today with a little over 1 million tonnes.
How does that compare with total production of plastics?
The total plastics production is around 260 million tonnes. That means that today, we make up for even less than half of a percent. According to our forecast, in about 5 years, we could break the 2% margin.
What are the industry's objectives for the future in terms of production and market share?
Needless to say, the objective of our industry is to grow and get as large a share of the market as possible.
I think what is very important is to get the big brand owners and retailers to switch over to bioplastics. They need to be convinced of the benefits when it comes to environmental issues from using different sorts of bioplastics. And this of course would be a big boost to help us grow even faster.
Your organisation mentions several markets where bioplastics are already in use, such as packing, electronics, and automotive industry. Are there any of those markets where bioplastics could represent 100% of production?
Well, today, from a technical point of view, we could already substitute almost 90% of the entire plastics market, but, of course, we don't have the capacities for that yet.
One very strongly growing market is the packaging sector. There, we expect that by 2016, 80% of the bioplastics production capacities will be met by bio-based PET which is used in bottles and rigid packaging. So that's definitely the largest market.
How can the industry meet that expected surge in demand? Part of it can be met with recycled bioplastics but I guess production will also have to come from agriculture…
Certainly. On the other hand, according to recent figures calculated by the University of Hannover, the total amount of arable land needed to cover the production of bioplastics today, is less than 0.02 %.
In 5 years time, should the forecast of a fivefold increase of bioplastics production capacities actually prove true, the acreage needed would still not exceed 0.06 %. And that does not even take into consideration that a lot of R&D is being done to work with, e.g., crop residuals, cellulose and waste as feedstock.
Do you expect this to have an impact on food prices or land use?
There is of course a correlation, the more bioplastics you use, the more crops you will need to grow at the end of the day to make them.
But the same calculations I mentioned before show that even if the entire plastics market was to switch to bioplastics, only 5% of arable land would be needed to meet that demand, on a global level.
Five percent of arable land seems relatively significant at global level. Don't you fear that this could put the industry in the spotlight for its environmental impact or influence on food prices?
This estimation applies only if we switch the entire production to crop-based bioplastics. And, as I said before, we expect a market of 6 million tonnes five years from now compared to a market of over 260 million tonnes for the entire plastics production.
So, we both probably won't live to see the day when bio-based plastics cover the entire market needs.
But, even if it were the case, the extra acreage needed in theory could be easily over-compensated if the amount of food wasted in Europe (around 25%) would be drastically reduced and the potential for increasing the crop yields per hectare in Eastern Europe would be adapted to that in Western European countries. Today, the ratio is somewhere between 30% and 70%.
Could bioplastics replace oil-based plastics completely in the future?
That depends on how you define future. In the long run, when fossil resources will practically all have been depleted, the answer is yes simply for the reason that there is no alternative.
Unlike in the energy sector, where, apart from biomass, you have different options to substitute fossil resources for the production of energy – like water, wind and sun – plastics can divert to biomass only.
But, please, don’t nail me down on as to what that could mean in years. I don't see it happening very quickly, it will take a lot of time and there are a lot of industries in the conventional plastics manufacturing which are not going to give up without a fight.
What are the drivers for growth in bioplastics? Does regulation play a role?
The main driver is, of course, the growing demand for more sustainably developed consumer products. Brandowners and OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] are looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint and replace limited fossil-based materials with renewable, bio-based solutions. More and more companies therefore integrate bioplastics into their corporate sustainability programmes.
To answer your question, regulation and a supportive policy framework are always important to help innovations take up momentum during their market introduction phase.
But currently, unlike in the case of biofuels, Europe has no supportive mechanisms for bioplastics in place. So we might not get as much help as we would like but it's not stopping us.
Regulation might not be stopping you but is it helping you at all?
It is encouraging but not really in a way that can be felt distinctively. The whole issue about the bio-economy and resource efficiency is going into the right direction, but today, most of the real help comes from funding for the research and development, where quite a lot is already happening on that front.
What we would need is more help when it comes to the transition from laboratory scale to pilot plants then one step higher to industrial-scale production.