Bioplastics in packaging: Economic opportunity or temporary phenomenon?

Bioplastics in packaging: Economic opportunity or temporary phenomenon? (1)(2)

Alexis Stassinopoulos (*)

Answers to this question will be provided at the Athens Bioplastics on Packaging Conference in 26th of November 2014. Purpose of this workshop-conference will be the unbiased evaluation of the technological and economic characteristics of bioplastics which would permit them to replace petrochemical plastics in the production of packaging materials.

This workshop-conference will not be deal with the environmental parameters of bioplastics. The Association of the Greek Manufacturers of Packaging and Materials has already presented in detail the environmental side together with the group of EN standards (from EN 13427 to UN 13432).


Under the umbrella of "Bioplastics" fit a large number of materials with widespread characteristics: In type of raw materials and method of manufacturing, in physicochemical mechanical and biological properties, in processing characteristics, and in their suitability for certain potential applications. A common classification is in the following broad categories:

(1) Produced from biomass and biodegradable (e.g. PLA and thermoplastic starch compounds)

(2) Produced from biomass but not biodegradable (e.g. bio-PE, bio-PET)

(3) Produced from petrochemicals but biodegradable (e.g. aliphatic co-polyesters)

(4) Produced with components coming from both biomass and petrochemicals (e.g. bio-PET)

Few of those bioplastics are produced in commercial quantities. Many more are under development, produced in pilot or laboratory quantities.  The diversity of materials tagged as bioplastics, the type of starting materials, the methods of production, and the widespread geographic distribution create a confused picture. There is no clear picture of the quantities produced and sold. What are usually reported, are production capacities and future forecasts. But even then there is confusion in original data containing a lot of wishful thinking, and further augmented by the media.

An example of confusion:   If you search internet for "bio-Polyethylene" you will end up with ten million references. A large amount of those references refer to the 2007 Dow-Crystalsev project in Brazil for the production of 400,000 t/y of bio-PE. This report is perpetuated even today by media who are speaking about the production of 600,000 t/y (adding the 400,000 t/y of Dow to the existing 200,000 t/y of the Brazilian Braskem). In reality the Dow-Crystalsev project never materialized. Dow found Mitsui as the next partner but still, in 2014, nothing has happened.

It is expected that the participants in the Athens Bioplastics conference will get numbers closer to the reality, without bias and far away from wishful thinking and promotional flashes.

Are there any packaging materials produced from bioplastics? (3)

Of course they are, and many examples will be presented at the Athens conference. However, their penetration in the real market is very small. I estimated that in the total 110 million tons of plastic demand for packaging applications, the share of packaging applications is only 350 thousand tons. That is about 0.3%. Please note that I am speaking about "bioplastics demand" and not "bioplastics production capacities".

The consumer good companies who have gone to the more expensive bioplastics packaging for some of their products, do this mostly for promotional and public relations purposes: Improve the green company profile, improve the products' carbon footprint, etc. The quantities of products turned into bioplastic packaging, the cost of packaging materials, and even the availability and the cost of precursor materials (like green ethylene glycol) are covered by complete secrecy.

Example: Coca-Cola advertises the "green bottle" made from a "green-PET" with one constituent green (ethylene glycol made from biomass).Which is about 30% green. Now, Pepsi fights back with the 100% green PET bottle, where both constituents are derived from biomass.  But none of them discloses the percentage of bottles turned into its green PET.

Is there a future of bioplastics in packaging?

I firmly believe that there is, although I cannot see how close is this future from today. My certainty stems from the following facts:

  • The concern of governments and organizations over the reduction of the dependence on fossil fuels.
  • The public and media pressure towards the adoption of the "green economy".
  • The spectacular laboratory and technological developments in emerging plastics, which have been abundantly funded by EU and national authorities.
  • The important investment in new production units by private funds, as well as governmental funding.
  • The accelerated needs of Asian and South American and African countries combined with the favorable conditions for biomass production in many of these countries.

The Athens workshop-conference on bioplastics in packaging

  • The workshop participants will have the opportunity to listen to, but also to discuss with leading bioplastics specialists who can offer reliable information on:
  • The suitability of bioplastics to replace fossil plastics in the packaging of consumer products, and especially food and beverage.
  • The technical specifications and the processability of bioplastics.
  • The present and coming bioplastics related legislation and standards.

The main producers of bioplastics suitable for packaging the main existing and potential applications and the cost relations between bioplastics and conventional petro-plastics.


(*) Dr. Alexis Stassinopoulos is the president of the Association of the Greek Manufacturers of Packaging and Materials / AGMPM ( )

(1) The title of this article (and of the Athens Bioplastics Conference) is a paraphrase of the   title of the pertinent work of Hartmut Widdecke et al. "Bioplastics: Economic opportunity or temporary phenomenon", The 160pp full report, by the same authors was publishes in 2009 under the name "Bioplastics 09/10 Processing parameters and technical characteristics. A global overview"

(2) Another comprehensive report on Bioplastics is that by I. Shen and M.K Pate: "Product overview and market projection of emerging bio-based plastics. PRO-BIP 2009". . Both reports (1) and (2) are already five years old and require updating.

(3) A recent Report on the application of bioplastics in food packaging is that of N. Peelman et al. / Trends in Food Science & Technology 32 (2013) 128e141. The report is limited to scientific and processing aspects but  commercial and application data is missing.

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