The very first bioplastic product was made in 1860: a billiard ball made from cellulose. However, bioplastics are still more expensive to produce than plastics, majorly because of cheap oil. Therefore, there must be other advantages why million tons of bioplastics are already being produced instead of plastics (the reasons of a circular economy):
- Bioplastics regenerate from biomass, which saves fossil resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions like CO2. Throughout its product life span, biomass can even capture CO2.
- Bioplastics are recyclable or even biodegradabe (or both): biodegradable bioplastics can also be composted into biomass (humus) at the end of their product’s life cycle to eliminate waste.
- Bioplastics can be produced locally from biomass even in your own garden! This way, no need to ship bioplastics around the globe, which again reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design, which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles”. With this definition in mind, bioplastics fit in this new economic concept, as they help to break away from the linear economy characterized by “make, use, dispose” in favor of a circular model based on “make, use, reuse, recycle”. Bioplastics are a perfect illustration of circularity as they use renewable, local raw materials to make more sustainable products.
Biomass – the source for bioplastics – can be made from several bio-based feedstocks:
- Agro-based feedstocks such as corn or sugar-cane
- ligno-cellulosic feedstocks consisting of plants that can’t be used for food or feed production, or
- organic waste feedstocks.
The potential to produce bioplastics from ligno-cellulosic feedstock is huge as every year, nature produces 2000 bio. tons of dead plants in form of cellulose and lignin – this is more than all plastics ever produced since 1950.
There are concerns that the production bioplastics will compete with food production for human and animals. However, only 0.006 % of the agricultural land world-wide are currently used to produce bioplastics. Also, to avoid food crops in the first place, the bioplastics industry is tapping alternative renewable resources such as cellulose and algae or organic waste (2nd and 3rd generation). The use of these bioplastic ressources grows much faster than the use of food crops, which holds great promise to substitute petrochemical plastics in a meaningful way.