Investors are pouring billions into the bioplastics industry, foreseeing a massive business opportunity in a sector at a time when plastic pollution has become a major global concern.
Bioplastics are biodegradable plastics derived from sources such as sugars and starches, rather than petrochemicals. Investment in bioplastic manufacturing jumped to $500 million in the first quarter of 2022, from $350 million in the previous quarter, according to data from market intelligence provider i3 Connect.
Georgia-based Danimer Scientific is making a big bet, investing more than $700 million into expanding its manufacturing operations in that state. The company, which was founded in 2007, creates products used in industries such as food packaging, bottling, and more for brands such as Nestle, Pepsi, and Mars-Wrigley.
Danimer has broken ground for a new 2 million-square-foot facility that will manufacture a type of a biodegradable plastic called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which is created by using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil. The site is estimated to be completed by late summer of 2023.
Meanwhile, plastics made from fossil fuels never fully disintegrate, instead just breaking down into smaller particles. Since 1950, about 9 billion tons of fossil fuel plastics have been manufactured, of which just 9 percent is estimated to have been recycled.
Another type of bioplastic is polylactic acid (PLA), which is made by fermenting sugar extracted from sugar cane and corn. NatureWorks, based in Minneapolis, is the world’s largest PLA company, and is investing $600 million at its plant in Thailand.
Unlike PHA, PLA takes longer to disintegrate. It needs to be mixed in with food waste to break down, something that will only occur over several decades.
Concerns Regarding Land Use, Product MarketingThere are concerns about using agricultural land to manufacture bioplastics. Hasso von Pogrell, managing director of European Bioplastics, however, dismisses such worries.
In 2021, only 0.7 million hectares of land were used for producing feedstock for manufacturing bioplastics, accounting for just over 0.01 percent of the 5 billion hectares of global agricultural land.
Companies are using claims of biodegradability as a tool to attract customers, Ramani Narayan, a professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, told AP. He thinks that the term has been “misused, abused, and overused.”