As plastic regulations and bans on plastic bags and other single-use plastic items such as drinking straws increase globally, the demand and, therefore, market value of biodegradable polymers exceeds $1-billion and will rise sharply to $1.7-billion by 2023, says global information provider IHS Markit.
Biodegradable or compostable polymers are bio-based or fossil-fuel-based polymers or plastics that undergo microbial decomposition to carbon dioxide and water in industrial or municipal compost facilities.
A few of these polymers are also able to decompose in backyard compost bins or in soil, fresh water or salt water.
The food packaging, disposable tableware (cups, plates, and cutlery) and bags sector is the largest end-use segment, as well as the major growth driver for biodegradable polymer consumption.
This segment will benefit from local restrictions on plastic shopping bags and will achieve double-digit growth.
Compost bags are the second-most important end-use for biodegradable polymers. This market segment will experience strong growth owing to the gradual expansion of composting infrastructure and growing interest in diverting organic waste, such as leaves, grass clippings and food waste from landfill, according to IHS Markit’s ‘Chemical Economics Handbook: Biodegradable Polymers’ report.
Foam packaging, which includes starch-based loose-fill packaging (packing peanuts), is a significant end-use for biodegradable polymers in Western Europe and North America; mulch films and other agricultural applications are important end-uses in Western Europe and Asia.
Smaller-volume markets include paper coatings for cups and cartons, as well as textiles, nonwoven fabrics, resorbable medical devices such as sutures and implants, downhole tools for oil- and gas field operations, and three-dimensional printing filament.
Currently, global demand for these polymers is 360 000 t, but total consumption of biodegradable polymers is expected to increase to almost 550 000 t by 2023, representing an average yearly growth rate of 9% for the five-year period, which is equivalent to a volume increase of more than 50% from 2018 to 2023.
Western Europe, with the world’s strictest and increasingly stringent regulations for single-use plastics, commands 55% of the global market value in 2018 for these specialty biodegradable polymers, followed by Asia and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) at 25%, then North America at 19% of consumption, with the rest of the world combined at less than 1% of demand.
“Biodegradable plastics, which are largely starch-based compounds or polylactic acid-based materials, have become more cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics and the demand is growing significantly, particularly in Western Europe, where environmental regulations are the strictest,” notes IHS Markit specialty chemicals research director Marifath Hackett.
However, the demand for these biodegradable polymers is still a drop in the bucket when you compare it with demand for traditional plastics such as polyethylene (PE).
According to IHS Markit, global demand for PE, the world’s most-used plastic, has nearly doubled during the last 20 years. IHS Markit expects 2018 global PE demand to exceed 100-million tons.
However, significant new market pressures, including a rise in consumer expectations around sustainability, along with tightening environmental regulations in mature markets such as Europe and key growth markets such as China, could threaten future demand growth.
“The properties and processability of biodegradable polymers have improved, allowing the use of these materials in a broader range of applications, but legislation is the single most important demand driver for these plastics,” Hackett remarks.
In contrast, biodegradable polymer use has grown more slowly or stagnated in places that lack mandates. Growing consumer awareness and activism regarding environmental issues could certainly increase the market for biodegradable plastics.
“To truly capture the benefits of these biodegradable polymers, however, you need to have the collection and composting infrastructure to support their use. Very few major cities or municipalities currently have the necessary infrastructure in place.”
Mandatory composting programmes can contribute to demand growth for biodegradable polymers, states IHS Markit.
These programmes divert organic waste from landfill, thus reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from landfill sites.
The expansion of composting programmes can spur demand for compostable trash bags and food service ware, both important end-uses for biodegradable polymers. The shortage of composting facilities that are capable of processing biodegradable polymers limits the positive impact of mandatory composting programmes on biodegradable polymer demand.
“Biodegradable or compostable polymers can play a role in diverting waste from landfills. For example, biodegradable pods for single-serve coffee makers simplify the disposal of used capsules; compostable trash bags can control odours, minimise mess, discourage pests and otherwise reduce the ‘yuck’ factor associated with residential composting programmes,” Hackett points out.
She adds that diverting organic waste from landfill reduces emissions of methane—which is a potent greenhouse gas.
“IHS Markit expects biodegradable or compostable plastics will increasingly be an important part of the sustainability solution, but much of their advancement and adoption will depend on legislation as well as consumer attitudes and behaviour.”