Peter Reineck: inside take on bioplastics

19 March 2010 | Peter Reineck

Peter Reineck has been an SCI member for 25 years. He is an active participant in the BioResources, Science and Enterprise, and Yorkshire and the Humber Groups, and has a business interest in bioplastics through his company. With Peter Reineck’s participation, SCI hosted the first major symposium in the UK on Bioplastics Processing and Properties in April 2009 (read more).

What are the benefits of bioplastics as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics?
Although most bioplastics are biodegradable, this is no longer considered their primary advantage. In an era of growing concern about finite reserves and rising price of fossil hydrocarbons, biorenewability has come to be seen as the main driver for use of bioplastics. Today, bioplastics are defined as biorenewable plastics, meaning polymers that come from renewable sources, such as sugar cane, maize or wheat, or trees. Replacement of fossil carbon based plastics with biorenewable plastics such as Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), Thermoplastic Starch Polymer (TSP) or Cellulosics conserves finite reserves of petroleum and reduces dependence on imported oil, while improving the sustainability of plastic packaging, synthetic fibres etc.

At end of life, bioplastic packaging, carpeting etc. can be converted to renewable energy by gasification or pyrolysis, with biodegradable items converted to biogas in an anaerobic digester (AD). This is a good opportunity to boost bioenergy production and avoid landfill. It is expected that bioenergy from waste will qualify for issuance of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) based on C14 content of a mixed waste stream.

What factors hold back companies from adopting bioplastics for packaging?
The main factors holding back adoption of first generation bioplastics were inadequate functionality and high cost; the use of GM feedstocks such as US-grown maize was also an issue in Europe. However, second generation biorenewable plastics with interesting functionality are poised to become viable competitors in niche markets now served by conventional plastics.

What are consumers’ attitudes towards bioplastics? Have they influenced companies’ adoption of these products?
In general terms, mass market consumers are ready to embrace sustainable bioplastic (and recycled) packaging and textiles, but are not prepared to pay a premium for it. However, producers and retailers have found that it is possible to realise value for biorenewable packaging and fibres in niche markets for Organic, Finest, Premium and Natural products.

What has been the impact of the current regulatory framework on the adoption and development of bioplastics?
Developments in the management of waste packaging and food waste streams, resulting from impending regulatory changes and growing interest in AD as a source of fuel, are expected to speed the adoption of bioplastics for packaging fresh produce and short shelf life products, whereby packaging film could be disposed of with associated food waste.

What can be done at the different stages of the supply chain to overcome the barriers to the market development of bioplastics?
Despite favourable spin, the bioplastics industry is still on the steep part of the learning curve, much as PET packaging was 25 years ago. The use of non-GM feedstocks will remove a barrier in Europe, but the major challenge is to grow the market for bioplastics, which is very small today. This will require the development of biopolymers with the required functionality, at prices competitive with conventional plastics.

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