Over the past year packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, based on projects that there will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging driven by consumers and recycling regulations. Some companies are predicting that the market will grow by about 20 per cent a year.
Harald Kaeb, chairman of Berlin-based International Biodegradable Polymers Association & Working Groups (IBAW) says the increasing interest in the technology is due in part to the improved functionality of bioplastics and their growing market share.
"Moreover, the risks created by imports and increasing costs for fossil raw materials play as much a role as climate change, whose negative effects are becoming increasingly pronounced," Kaeb said in an analysis of the sector published by the organisation. "In consequence the plastics industry is putting more and more emphasis on the use of renewable raw materials."
In general, the price difference between materials made of renewable raw materials and standard plastic materials has decreased considerably
Food packagers last year faced price hikes of between 30 per cent to 80 per cent for conventional plastics due to the increased cost of petroleum. With the increases some bioplastics products reached full price competitiveness with the traditional oil-based packaging.
In 2005, sugar and starch were less expensive raw materials than mineral oil.
Kaeb believes that with improved manufacturing processes and cost-competitiveness of the future, the long-term perspectives for bioplastics are promising.
The number of manufacturers of bioplastic products is worldwide strongly increasing and more competition will give further momentum to the development of the sector, he stated.
In some important areas, technical developments have allowed bioplastic materials to achieve the quality of conventional products made of mineral oil.
"A new trend is the combination of commercialised biomaterials, thus creating new functional characteristics and special benefits," he stated.
Other development efforts are focused on multi-layer films with altered characteristics that could for example improve the barrier characteristics of packaging materials.
"In view of the long development cycles for plastics that usually take 20 to 30 years from invention to widespread application, we must look for alternatives in time," Kaeb stated about the opportunities being presented to the fledgling bioplastics sector.
The bioplastic industry also faces considerable risks, since bioplastics still only have niche markets.
Kaeb says experts estimate that today's bioplastics have a potential to capture about 10 per cent f the present plastic market of 40 million tonnes in Europe. This figure includes packging for food and other consumer goods
"In order to exploit this potential, investments of several billion euros will be required, especially for building larger manufacturing plants," he stated.
Another factor will be legislative support for the sector. Compared to renewable energies and biofuels, there is less support for products made of renewable raw materials, Kaeb noted.
One of the first measures to promote the technology is the exemption given to biopackaging in the German Packaging Ordinance of May 2005.
The association is asking for further measures that will pave the way for a widespread market introduction," he stated.
According to Kaeb, the bioplastics industry is at the leading edge of a development that will spread to other oil-dependent industry sectors in the coming
"What we need right now is a larger avenue for our products and more start-up support so that the opportunities offered by bioplastic technology can be fully exploited as soon as possible," he stated.
Over the past year a number of major packaging manufacturers have released biodegradable products.
One is Amcor, which has teamed up with Plantic Technologies to develop a biodegradable, flexible plastic packaging for confectionary.
Another is US-based NatureWorks, part of Cargill. NatureWorks is one the main mover behind the biodegradable packaging trend with its introduction of polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based polymer.
Others include Danish-based Danisco, which announced this year that it has produced a plasticiser from hardened castor oil and acetic acid. It is colourless, odorless and completely biodegradable.
Another company competiting in the biodegradable packaging market is UK-based Stanelco. The company markets a natural, biodegradable food packaging based on starch, called Starpol 2000.
Germany-based BASF has also announced it will launch a biodegradable plastic based on renewable raw materials in a bid to meet what it believes will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. The company's Ecovio plastic is made up of 45 per cent PLA from NatureWorks. The other component is BASF's existing biodegradable plastic Ecoflex, which is derived from petrochemicals.
BASF forecasts that the world market for biodegradable plastics to grow by more than 20 per cent per year.
Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk. Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.