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The Future of Bioplastics: Opportunities and Challenges on the Horizon

Conventional plastics pose a major environmental threat.

Here’s why:

A staggering amount, more than 400 million tons, are produced each year. 

Waste plastics take up to 500 years to degrade.

Every year, about eight million tons of plastic waste escape into the oceans from coastal nations affecting marine life.

This explains why overuse of plastics has become an existential threat – that is no exaggeration. But modern lifestyle demands easy-to-use packaging material that is durable yet cheap, and plastic fulfills that need.



Thankfully, there is now an answer to the pesky question of ‘how do we keep on living our lives as we’ve become used-to, even without plastic?’.

Bioplastics have emerged as a possible solution to the plastic and as a remedy to the problem of plastic pollution. These eco-friendly materials are biodegradable, renewable, and compostable (we’ll learn more about this).


First, some examples.


Bioplastic examples include Bio-PET, Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), Polylactic acid (PLA) and many more variations.


Really; their discovery is a game-changer for a world seeking sustainable solutions.

In this guide, we will understand the promise of bioplastics, and also what’s holding them back (and how do we overcome these barriers).

 

Bioplastics: Where We Stand Today

 

Now, bioplastics offer plenty of environmental benefits, but they are such a tiny part of the plastics market that they’re as good as not there at all.

However, growing concerns about traditional plastics are driving a surge in demand for bioplastics, so this should change.

Currently, bioplastics make up only about 1% of global plastic production. This is expected to rise significantly, and very soon. Forecasts predict a jump from 2.2 million tons in 2022 to 7.4 million tons by 2028.


It’s useful to know that:


  • The biggest user of bioplastics is the flexible packaging industry, followed by rigid packaging.

  • Polylactic acid (PLA) and bioplastic starch blends are the most common types of bioplastics. 

  • Bio-based PET, a more sustainable version of a widely used plastic, is also gaining recognition.


Next, let’s talk of the biggest challenges that haven’t let bioplastics become mainstream now.


Challenges Facing Bioplastics

Bioplastics offer hope for a more sustainable future, but the transition to widespread adoption is not going to be easy.

Here are some key challenges:

  1. High Production Costs:

One of the biggest challenges bioplastics face is high production costs. Conventional plastics are far cheaper.

Bioplastics are more expensive due to the higher costs of bio-based raw materials. 

The average cost of bioplastics can be anywhere from $2-$6 per kilogram. But conventional plastics are available at a fraction of that cost.

  1. Limited Raw Material Supply:

The supply of raw materials for bioplastics is limited. They are derived from renewable resources like sugarcane, corn, or even microbes like yeast.

Their production raises concerns about land use. Estimates suggest this shift could require a staggering 5% of all arable land globally.

Millions of acres of cultivable land are necessary to create packaging materials. That requires a shift from food crops.

Handing over a large part of arable land to bioplastics could cause food prices to skyrocket.

  1. Environmental Impact and Degradation:

Bioplastics are often promoted as environmentally friendly. However, not all types of bioplastics are environmentally friendly.

A distinction needs to be drawn between bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable materials.

  • Biodegradable: This simply means something can be broken down by microorganisms over time. The timeframe and conditions aren't specified. It could happen anywhere, but it might take a long time, even centuries. Woolen socks degrade in five years while leather shoes might take 40 years.

  • Compostable: This is a more specific term. Compostable materials break down quickly under controlled conditions. These conditions are present in a home compost bin or industrial composting facility. There are certifications for compostable packaging in North America and Europe.

  • Bio-based: This tells you about the origin of the material. Bio-based plastics are made from renewable resources like plants. Bio-based plastics may or may not be biodegradable and compostable.


So the big question becomes this: how do we tackle these challenges? The answer is a crop that’s world-renowned for two reasons:

  1. It has more than 100 uses.

  2. It’s remained outlawed for a good part of the last 100 years, because of being misunderstood as an ‘addictive’ substance It’s Agri waste.


So let’s find out how cellulose based agri waste  can tackle some of the challenges faced by bioplastics.


Cellulose-based agricultural waste can indeed be an excellent choice for several reasons:

  1. Abundance: Cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on Earth. Agricultural residues like straw, husks, and stalks are rich in cellulose, making them readily available feedstock.

  2. Renewability: Unlike finite fossil fuels, cellulose-based agricultural waste is renewable. Its production is cyclical, aligning with agricultural harvests.

  3. Low Cost: Utilizing agricultural waste for cellulose extraction can be cost-effective. Since these residues are often considered waste, their acquisition cost is minimal compared to purpose-grown crops.

  4. Environmental Benefits: Using cellulose-based agricultural waste reduces the need for landfill space and the environmental impacts of waste incineration. It also mitigates greenhouse gas emissions by diverting organic matter from decomposition.

  5. Versatility: Cellulose derived from agricultural waste can be used in various applications, including biofuels, bioplastics, construction materials, and even as a dietary fiber supplement.

  6. Circular Economy: Incorporating agricultural waste into cellulose-based products promotes a circular economy. By reusing waste materials, it closes the loop on resource utilization and reduces dependency on virgin materials.

  7. Support for Rural Economies: Utilizing cellulose from agricultural waste can provide additional income streams for farmers. It creates opportunities for value-added products and encourages innovation in rural areas, thus bolstering local economies.


By harnessing cellulose from agricultural waste, we can not only address waste management challenges but also foster sustainable practices and economic development.


Bioplastics: A Bright and Green Future:

As you can tell, we are advocates for sustainable biomaterial, and we could be nothing else. For the past three years, if there's one thing we have believed, it is that this one crop is everything we need to solve almost all of the problems of our planet. But let's stick to plastic pollution for the moment.


At Ukhi, our goal is simple: make bioplastics the first choice of anyone who makes plastics. How? We give them agri waste based bio-granules that can be directly used on plastic machines to make compostable products, and we do it in a way that they can viably buy from us and make bioplastic alternatives of their plastic products that can compete in the real market with plastics, till everyone sees the sense—both moral and economic—in switching to bioplastics.


Sounds lofty? That’s because it is, but it’s backed by science. If you share our enthusiasm for bioplastics, you will love to hear what we’ve been able to do with agri-waste.

Let's talk!

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