Unchartered territory: Discovering a sustainable resource for bioplastics

The demand for bioplastics is higher than ever, thanks to consumers’ continued interest in sustainable products. Some of the world’s biggest brands are starting to use biobased materials, such as Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) in their packaging – a sure sign of the positive direction the industry is taking. However, with growing demands for materials with minimal impact on the environment, the methods of production used to create bioplastics is facing increased scrutiny.

Getting the facts straight

Lactic acid is widely used in the production of some bioplastics. Commonly made from sugar – either derived from cane or beet, recently there has been a heated debate on the use of crops for applications other than for food or feed. Will there be enough for everyone, amid a growing population? In fact, agricultural land dedicated to growing crops for bioplastics worldwide is minimal - it accounted for less than 0.02% in 2017 - and it’s expected to stay this way for many years to come.

Nevertheless, the use of next generation (or alternative) carbohydrates as a biomass source for bioplastics is currently being explored. Unlike first generation feedstocks, such as sugarcane or sugar beet, next generation feedstocks are not intended for human consumption and therefore present a valuable potential additional feedstock source. Promising materials include bagasse, corn stover, wheat straw and wood chips – from agricultural by-products and waste streams.

Treading new paths

For us, the creation of bioplastics made from alternative feedstocks has been an enlightening journey. Starting almost a decade ago, we were the first company to successfully produce PLA from alternative feedstocks on a lab scale. Since then, we have become a member of the European Bioplastics Association and have championed the use of biobased materials in the plastics industry to make a positive difference on the world, whether coming from today's available natural resources such as sugarcane and corn, or tomorrow's next generation feedstocks.

Through our joint venture Total Corbion PLA, we can take the lead in the value chain, providing expertise and state-of-the-art technologies to support our suppliers, customers, partners and other stakeholders in meeting market needs and navigating the changing landscape together.

Source: European Plastics/Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (December 2013)/FAQ 2011.

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