Biodegradable plastics' 'green' association propels their growth, claims report

The green factor is triggering the growth of biodegradable plastics, particularly in the areas of consumer products and packaging, Frost & Sullivan reports.

As biodegradable plastics fall under the "green" category, they exhibit high potential for growth compared to other thriving environment-friendly technologies in the renewable energy and chemicals segments. That’s the conclusion of new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, “Biodegradable Plastics—A Strategic Assessment of Technology Status and Application Prospects.”

The report indicates that opportunities are proliferating in key application areas such as packaging/plastic bags, agriculture, consumer goods, electronics, automotive, and healthcare. Growth in this sector occurs due to factors such as climate change, favorable governmental measures, and green procurement policies practiced by governments and corporate entities. Stringent environmental regulations are driving the development of bio-based products and are triggering the growth of the biodegradable plastics industry.

In the analysis, Frost & Sullivan finds that consumer products and packaging have emerged as the application sectors having the highest potential for biodegradable plastics. Analysis revealed that film packaging and rigid packaging scored the best in terms of level of attractiveness and possibility of success.

"Traditional packaging materials contain a range of oil-based polymers, which are largely nonbiodegradable," notes technical insights research analyst W.F. Kee. "Packaging waste forms a significant part of municipal solid waste and has caused increasing environmental concerns, resulting in strengthening of legislation in order to reduce packaging waste."

The report notes that with the ramping up of the attraction quotient in recent years, green products are clearly gaining advocates. “It has become increasingly fashionable for the public to support green products,” Frost & Sullivan says. “The popularity of hybrid cars and reusable bags is a good example. Eco-friendly products have been introduced in various sectors, including food, appliances, and cars.”

Consumer interest in bio-based packaging is on the rise, the analysis relates. Public support for green products is partially responsible for the biodegradable plastics market growth, and this global trend is expected to continue, gathering steam in the future.

Challenges to growth

Although the overall prospects look bright, some issues have been reining in market progress, the report notes. Cost competitiveness is foremost among the challenges confronting the market. To circumvent this obstacle, proposed solutions include the use of cheaper feedstock, for instance, biomass-based feedstock, as well as an integrated process. Utilization of feedstock is very limited right now, Frost & Sullivan says, and the adoption of biomass-based feedstock will mostly be influenced by the development of improved biocatalysts.

Other concerns associated with biodegradable plastics are poor processability characteristics, low barrier properties toward air, water, and oxygen, low resistance to heat, and in some cases, low shelf life, the report states.

"The properties of traditional biodegradable polymers do not offer the essential mechanical properties and fail to match up to the needs of end-user application compared with conventional plastics," says Kee. "This acts as a barrier for the penetration of biodegradable packaging in high-end applications."

The report concludes that it is imperative that these impediments be addressed before biodegradable products can compete on an equal footing with conventional plastics.

Suggestions to improve properties include deploying enhanced blending technologies or developing composites. Blending studies are underway in the academic and corporate sectors, and efforts have been initiated for the development of bio- and nanocomposites, Frost & Sullivan says. The former incorporates bio-based materials such as natural fibers to improve the mechanical properties of biodegradable plastics, while the latter incorporates nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes to produce materials that are stronger and more durable.

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