Plastics have become a major environmental issue on our planet. They are found in all parts of our life, and the disposable plastics that we have become so used to are clogging our drainage and waterways, and polluting the rivers and oceans. Last month at the World Ocean Summit in Bali, Indonesia, UN “declared a war” on plastics by launching a campaign meant to urge business and government ban or tax single-use plastic bags, dramatically reduce the use of disposable plastic items by 2022 and eliminate microplastics from end use products like cosmetics. So, what are two main alternatives to wean us off our dependency on petroleum-based disposable foodware like spoons, plates and cups?
Bioplastics & PLA as an alternative
One alternative available to deal with the threat of plastic pollution is substitution with biodegradable bioplastics. In general, bioplastics can be bio-based and either biodegradable/non-biodegradable, or bioplastics can be petro-based but biodegradable. Here’s a table providing some examples for these various combinations:
|Polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), Cellulose-based bioplastics||Bio-based polyethylene (PE), Bio-based polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Bio-based polyamides (PA)|
|Polybutyrate adipate terephthalate (PBAT), Polycaprolactone (PCL)||(This category is simply conventional plastics.)|
Polylactic acid (PLA) is the most widely used biodegradable bioplastic (5% of global production capacities in 2016). It is produced from fermentation of sugars derived from feedstock such as corn, potatoes, tapioca, and subsequent polymerization of the derived monomer, lactic acid. PLA looks very much like conventional plastics but is brittle and has low thermal stability hence for some applications requires blending with other renewable materials like starch. PLA can be used for making disposable foodware and packaging (cups, plates, cutlery, food storage containers, cosmetics packaging), durables like electronics housing, textiles, mulch foils in agriculture, textiles and medical applications. A bioplastic like pure PLA is more than 3 times costlier than regular plastics. This cost is brought down in certain cases of blending done to give favorable properties to the bioplastic.
Bagasse as an alternative raw material
Another effective alternative for plastics, that is a more direct way of utilizing renewable materials and is less technology intensive, is bagasse-based products. Bagasse is the industrial residue generated by milling of sugarcane. India being second in sugar production in the world, it is readily available in the country. Bagasse can be transformed into plates, cups, bowls, spoons, takeaway containers and delivery containers. In fact, it is is the earliest used agricultural waste, going back to early part of the 20th century, in the manufacturing of eco-friendly plates. The conversion of bagasse into end products consists of two steps, first conversion of bagasse into pulp, and further its conversion into the end product through application of heat (molding). Since the first step is an expensive one, a turnkey facility doing both these steps needs scale to achieve profitability.
For a 10,000 TPA pulp-to-bagasse-product plant, the total costs (including raw materials, power, labor, O&M and finance costs) come to around Rs.70-100/kg. Capital cost for the capacity is of the order of 30 crores. In comparison, the total costs for just conversion of LA to PLA lies in the range of Rs.300-350/kg as per our estimates, whereas the capital costs come to Rs.160 cr. As clear from above, in the current market and technology environment, bagasse-based foodware outperform it’s bioplastic counterpart in costs. For bioplastics, there hasn’t been any strong downward trend in costs in the previous years, and we expect the same to continue for a couple of years more, 3-5 years at least – as technology in India for making end products from bioplastic resins undergoes more experimentation. The fact that more wider adoption of bioplastics is dependent on government mandates has also been a hindering factor. Bagasse-based products are able to provide other advantages as well:
- Bioplastics look similar to conventional plastics which can leave the consumer confused. Standard labeling is thus required to provide clarity to the end consumers and distinguish bioplastics. Bagasse-based products on the other hand possess appeal of a “natural product”.
- Bagasse-based product have a very fine finish, compared to other eco-friendly products like areca leaf plates.
On the other hand, these are some of the disadvantages of the bagasse-based foodware over bioplastics:
- Certain chemicals could be added in the conversion of bagasse pulp to the end products to increase the structural stability of the product. These chemicals could leach when in contact with hot food. Hence, the ‘natural’ tag needs to be taken a closer look.
- Even though bagasse foodware is soak-proof and can work in temperatures from -5 to 120°C, hot food and liquids causes it to “breathe” and loose some of its strength.
Current market in India:
- In India, there are a couple of small to medium-scale businesses who make bagasse-based foodware. EAI had recently done an interview with Bengaluru-based social entrepreneur Samanvi Bhograj, whose company has seen considerable success with this. This is an opportune moment for entrepreneurs to enter this market and build a good brand, which is currently lacking to a large extent with the existing products.
- For bioplastics, there are similarly less than 5 companies who are involved in bioplastic foodware production, focused on the part of the value chain from the bioplastic resin (which is imported from vertically integrated companies abroad) to the end product.
EAI’s work in the biomass sector
EAI is one of the most respected brands in the biomass sector. We have an extensive experience in doing technical, market and commercial studies for the use of biomass residues for energy and sustainable materials for clients including multinational companies, entrepreneurs and government agencies. Bioplastics.guide (a part of EAI) provides consulting services focused on bioplastics, including market entry assistance for entrepreneurs and businesses, and diversification for related industries (chemical industries, plastic manufacturers, additives manufacturers). In addition, our bioplastics report provides extensive market strategy for the whole bioplastics value chain. If you would like to learn more about these services, you can write to us at email@example.com. In Part II of this post, we will take a deeper look into the financials of bioplastic and bagasse-based products.