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Non-food crops as feedstock for bioplastics: Is there a critical need?


What is the real challenge?

The food crisis is affecting over three billion people—half the world’s population. The Bioplastics Industry contribute to this existing global food crisis by taking over large areas of land previously used to grow crops used as food for human consumption or as feed for animals. This has pushed every bioplastics manufacturer to look for alternative feedstock that is not a direct competition for food or feed and also put significant efforts to use the current feedstock more efficiently and sustainable sourcing of the same.

But is the threat from bioplastics real? Is there a critical need for the bioplastic industry to immediately switch to alternative feedstock to reduce the impact on food security?

This post analyses the controversies pertaining to the bioplastic industry under manifold aspects that influence the biomass feedstock used and its impact on food security.

 

What are the current sources of feedstock for bioplastics?

Bioplastic Feedstock can be generally divided into –

 

Type Description Examples
First generation Carbohydrate rich plants such as corn or sugar cane that can also be used as food or animal feed are called food crops or 1st generation feedstock.Currently, 1st generation feedstock is the most efficient feedstock for the production of bioplastics as it requires the least amount of land to grow and produce the highest yields Corn, Wheat, Sugarcane, Potato, Sugar beet, Rice, Plant oil, Natural rubber
Second generation This refers to feedstock not suitable for food or feed. It can be either non-food crops (e.g. cellulose) or waste materials from 1st generation feedstock (e.g. waste vegetable oil). Wood (short-rotation coppice such as poplar, willow or Miscanthus), Wheat straw, Bagasse, Corncobs, Palm fruit bunches, Switch grass, Waste fat and oils
Third generation This term currently relates to biomass from algae, which – having a higher growth yield than 1st and 2nd generation feedstock – were given their own category. It also relates to bioplastics from waste streams such as CO2 or methane AlgaeCo2Methane

 

Comparison of first and second generation feedstock


Parameter First generation (Sugar, Starch) Second generation (Lignocellulose)
Technology maturity High Low
Cost competitiveness  (against petro plastics) Very low Low
Supply chain Competing for food, animal feed and energy. Competing with traditional industrial energy requirement.
Direct competition with food and feed Yes No

 

To what extent does the bioplastic production impact food production, current and future?

The public debate mostly focuses on the obvious direct competition for food crops between different uses: food, feed, industrial materials and energy. However, we argue that the crucial issue is land availability, since the cultivation of non-food crops on arable land would reduce the potential availability of food just as much or even more, as will be discussed below.

The common controversy surrounding the bioplastic industry is on the obvious direct competition for food crops for different uses – food, feed and industrial uses and to look for alternative feedstock. However, if the growth trend continues to grow and there is a shift to the use of non-food crop by every major bioplastic manufacturer, the amount of land used for cultivating non-food crop too will be on the rise. This will be a serious and direct threat to the land available for food crop cultivation. Hence, the criticality lies in the amount of land available for cultivation, both food and non-food crops.

Land use

Current impact

The land used to grow the renewable feedstock for the production of bioplastics amounted to approximately 0.75 million hectares in 2015, which accounted for only 0.01 percent of the global agricultural area of 5 billion hectares, 90 percent of which were used for pasture, feed, food, other material uses, bioenergy, and biofuels.

Future impact

Assuming continued high and maybe even politically supported growth in the bioplastics market, at the current stage of technological development, the expected use of land for bioplastics production is only around 1.7 million hectares which is 0.02% of the agricultural land.

Biopolymers-Facts-Statistics-2016.indd

Source –  Institute for Bioplastics and Bio-composites (IfBB)

 

Based on the above studies by non-Institut and IfBB, it shows that there will be a significant amount of land available even after worldwide food demand has been satisfied.

Feedstock efficiency

With significant amount of land being available, we must look out for measures on how best to use these available areas. This introduces us to the other factor to be considered to study the impact of bioplastics on food security, which is feedstock efficiency. Recent studies have shown that certain food crops use much lesser land when compared to second generation lignocellulosic non-food crops. This causes a debate on whether to use the abundant land available for land efficient food crops or for non-food crops that requires more land and provide no sort of flexibility in times of food crisis, as they can ensure supply only for industrial applications and not for food or feed.

What are the solutions being attempted to decrease the impact of bioplastics on food based sources, and the potential for each?

Though the impact of bioplastics on food security is closer to negligible, there are many attempts being undertaken by the industry to nullify the factors that may prove to be critical in the future (2025). The possible factors that may prove to be critical:

  • Supply chain (To meet the estimated market size of 6 million tonnes of bioplastic by 2020, the feedstock required will also be high)
  • Consumer activism (against food crops and GM crops)
  • Policies (Though it is the least critical, problems might arise for using arable lands for bioplastics instead of food cultivation)

Some of the approaches made by the bioplastic industry include –

  • Using an increased share of food residues, non-food crops or cellulosic biomass that could lead to even less land use demand for bioplastics than the amount given above.
  • Using the renewable resource that has the highest “feedstock efficiency”. – Conversion ratio of feedstock weight to final plastic polymer weight.
    • PLA is one of the most efficient biopolymers: yielding 1kg of PLA polymer for 1.6 kg of fermentable sugar feedstock. Other bioplastics can require 2.5 – 3 times more sugar feedstock to produce the same amount of plastic.
  • Resource efficient technologies that can convert that feedstock into bioplastic with minimal energy, water, and other inputs while delivering performance which is at par with their fossil-based equivalents.

Global Bioplastic firms that use non-food resources

Company Biopolymer Details Products
Carbion PLA From bagasse, corn Stover, wheat straw and wood chips PackagingHigh heat packaging and disposablesConsumer good and electronics

Automotive

Sabic Bio-PE, Bio-PP Manufactured from waste fats and oils Packaging
Solvay Cellulose acetate Wood pulp Cosmetic packagingToys, Pens, Handling ToolsHair accessories

Furniture

Eyeglasses

Mobile phones and computer devices

Biome Bioplastics Cellulose, Lignin Wood pulp FilmsCoatingsLamination
NatureWorks PLA Co2, Methane

 

Based on all the above, what do we feel will be the key trends to watch out for in the efforts to achieve a balance between bioplastics growth and its impact on food crops?

Until now, the contribution to the overall bioplastic market is dominated by first-generation feedstock, such as industrial cane sugar, sugar beet, corn or cassava, depending on the region of bioplastic production. They are highly efficient feedstock that are—and will most likely remain—a good choice for lactic acid and PLA production, the most dominant biodegradable polymer.

However, the fact that they are all food crops/animal feed has, from the very beginning, given rise to controversy and debate. Although studies from nova-Institut in Germany and European Bioplastics have convincingly demonstrated that the production of bioplastics does not compete with food production, the subject continues to be an emotional one.

Hence, Bioplastics producers are acting on the market’s desire to move away from food-based feedstock and are investigating on alternative options, such as second generation lignocellulosic feedstock (bagasse, corn stover, wheat straw, wood chips), waste biomass, and lactic acid from co2 and methane.

We infer that till 2020, the need for second gen feedstock is not going to be significant. Beyond 2020, given the advancement in the technology should happen, there will be a huge role for second gen feedstock to play in the bioplastic industry.Hence, till 2020, first gen feedstock has a very high scope to perform well in the overall bioplastics market due to the maturity in the technology.Industry requires significant amount of time to develop the right technologies for second and third generation feedstock usages and therefore first-generation feedstock should be considered as an important, long or even everlasting bridge to the second and third generations – if these turn out to be more efficient in the future.

 

References and Useful Links

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Narasimhan Santhanam

Thank you for reading this post – hope it was helpful. You can connect with me at narsi@solarmango.com . My detailed profile here and my LinkedIn profile here

Posted in: Bio Energy, Bioplastics

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