Study: Bio-Based Plastics Could Ultimately Replace Up to 90% of Total Global Consumption of Plastics in 2007
8 November 2009
|Projections of the worldwide production capacity of bio-based plastics through 2020. Source: PRO-BIP 2009. Click to enlarge.|
Replacement of up to 90% (270 Mt) of the total global consumption of plastics in 2007 with bio-based plastics is ultimately technically possible, according to new study by authors at Utrecht University, commissioned by the associations European Bioplastics and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE). How fast this substitution will occur depends on a multitude of factors.
Study authors Martin K. Patel, Li Shen and Juliane Haufe project that by 2020, worldwide bio-plastics capacity could increase to as much as 4.40 Mt (about 1.5% of 2007 consumption) under a high growth scenario—approximately 30% higher than the projections based on company announcements (3.45 Mt) and the companies’ expectations (3.44 Mt).
The authors define bio-based plastics as human-made or -processed organic macromolecules derived from biological resources and for plastic and fiber applications (without paper and board). This is to avoid the ambiguity of the term “bioplastics”, which is sometimes applied to plastics (even those derived from fossil resources) that are biodegradeable.
The developments in the past five years in emerging bio-based plastics are spectacular from a technological point of view. Many old processes have been revisited, such as the chemical dehydration of ethanol which leads to ethylene, an important intermediate chemical which can be subsequently converted into polyethylene (PE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastics. Moreover, recent technology breakthroughs substantially improved the properties of novel bio-based plastics, such as heat-resistance of PLA, enabling a much wider range of applications. For numerous types of plastics, first-of-its kind industrial plants were recently set up and the optimization of these plants is ongoing.
Hence, we are at the very beginning of the learning curve. Some of the plant capacities are still rather small when compared to petrochemical plants (e.g. the capacity of Tianan’s PHA plant is only 2 kt), but others are very sizable (e.g. Dow-Crystalsev’s bio-based PE plant will have a capacity of 350 kt). With growing demand for bio-based plastics, it is probably just a matter of time until turn-key plants with large capacities will be commercially available for more bio-based plastics, thereby allowing substantially accelerated growth.—PRO-BIP 2009
The bio-based plastics investigated in the study include starch plastic, cellulose polymers and plastics, PLA (polylactic acid), PTT (polytrimethylene terephthalate), PA (polyamides), PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates), PE (polyethylene), PVC (polyvinylchloride), and other polyesters (e.g. PBT [polybutylene terephthalate], PBS [polybutylene succiniate], PET [polyethylene terephthalate] and PEIT [polyehthylene-coisosorbite terephthalate]), PUR (polyurethane) and thermosets (e.g. epoxy resins).
For each of these plastics, the report presents the bio-based production routes, material properties, technical substitution potentials, applications today and tomorrow, emerging producers and wherever possible, costs.
The authors estimate the global capacity of emerging bio-based plastics at 0.36 Mt (million metric tonnes) by the end of 2007—approximately 0.3% of the worldwide production of all plastics. They estimate the total maximum technical substitution potential of bio-based polymers replacing their petrochemical counterparts at 270 Mt, or 90% of the total polymers (including fibres) that were consumed in 2007 worldwide.
It will not be possible to exploit this technical substitution potential in the short to medium term. The main reasons are economic barriers (especially production costs and capital availability), technical challenges in scale-up, the short-term availability of bio-based feedstocks and the need for the plastics conversion sector to adapt to the new plastics. Nevertheless, this exercise shows that, from a technical point of view, there are very large opportunities for the replacement of petrochemical by bio-based plastics.—PRO-BIP 2009
Forecast to 2020. Based on company announcements, the authors calculate the worldwide capacity of bio-based plastics will increase from 0.36 Mt in 2007 to 2.33 Mt in 2013 and to 3.45 Mt in 2020. This is equivalent to average annual growth rates of 37% between 2007 and 2013 and 6% between 2013 and 2020.
In 2007, the most important products in terms of production volumes were starch plastics (0.15 Mt) and PLA (0.15 Mt). Based on the company announcements, the authors project that the most important representatives by 2020 will be starch plastics (1.3 Mt), PLA (0.8 Mt), bio-based PE (0.6 Mt) and PHA (0.4 Mt).
The authors also developed three different growth scenarios based on expected influencing factors (e.g., technical barriers, bulk applications, cost and raw material supply security): baseline business as usual (BAU), high and low growth.
The BAU scenario assumes a steady growth of the four key plastics (i.e. starch plastics, PLA, bio-based PE and bio-based epoxy resin) and a modest growth for cellulose films, PHA and bio-based PUR. The BAU projection results in a global production capacity of approximately 3 Mt for 2020.
Under the high-growth scenario, the four key plastics are expected to grow strongly, while a steady growth rate is foreseen for cellulose films, PHA and bio-based PUR. PA 11 and PTT will not enjoy substantial growth because of their limited use in bulk applications. The high scenario projects that the global production will reach 4.40 Mt by 2020, approximately 30% higher than the projections based on company announcements (3.45 Mt) and the companies’ expectations (3.44 Mt).
The low-growth scenario describes a relatively pessimistic future. The four key plastics will grow relatively slowly and the growth from the remaining plastics will be insignificant. Little progress will be made for bio-based succinic acid, bio-based PA 6 and 66, and bio-based PP. The low scenario projects that only 1.47 Mt capacity will be installed by 2020. This is approximately 60% lower than the projections.
Several factors clearly speak for bio-based plastics. These are the limited and therefore uncertain supply with fossil fuels (especially oil and gas), the related economic aspects, environmental considerations (especially savings of non-renewable energy and greenhouse gas abatement), innovation offering new opportunities (technical, employment etc.) and rejuvenation in all steps from chemical research to the final product and waste management.
Challenges that need to be successfully addressed in the next years and decades are the lower material performance of some bio-based polymers, their relatively high cost for production and processing and the need to minimize agricultural land use and forests, thereby also avoiding competition with food production and adverse effects on biodiversity and other environmental impacts.—PRO-BIP 2009
Li Shen, Juliane Haufe, Martin K. Patel. “Product overview and market projection of emerging bio-based plastics: PRO-BIP 2009” (June 2009)
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