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The market for biodegradable plastics will grow considerably in the coming years. A significant share of these plastics is used for packaging foods, especially fresh products. The question is whether degradable bio-based plastics will become mainstream in the food sector. The market has been rather unresponsive as yet.
Lucien Joppen

Technology research agency Technavio argues that the market for biodegradable plastics is showing an upward trend. It expects a CAGR of 21 percent between 2016 and 2021. This would put the global sales at some 5.3 billion US dollars in 2021. These plastics are used mainly in applications with a short lifespan, such as (food) packaging, foams, rubbish bags, agricultural plastics and a further range of other products.
Western Europe dominates the world market with a sales share of 41 percent. According to Technavio, market parties and consumers are open to products which are marketed with an ‘environmental plus point’ (editor’s note: more on this later). Consumer awareness is relatively high, partly because various national governments, including the Netherlands and Germany, put an emphasis on the instruction and collection – source separation – of plastic materials and packaging. In the medium term, other regions – the BRIC countries, Asia-Pacific, the rest of Europe and North America – will catch up.

Contents and packaging

‘We see a rise in environmentally friendly packaging materials (editor’s note: i.e. packaging with a low CO2 footprint) which are often used for products, especially foods, with a natural, sustainable and/or healthy positioning,’ according to Swapnil Tejveer Sharma, analyst at Technavio. According to Sharma, the packaging and the contents enhance each other, so that certain consumers are more inclined to take a product if its packaging ‘is right’.
In the biodegradable plastics field, it is the biobased plastics which dominate the market. Eighty percent of the global volume of degradable plastics is based on biomass: PLA, potato starch plastics, PHA, PCL, PBS and various types of fibrous materials such as paper, cardboard and composite materials. One good example of the last-mentioned form is the egg carton of the Rondeel egg, produced by the Dutch Paperfoam company.

Food the big customer

Food is by far the largest customer of biodegradable plastics/materials (including paper and cardboard). According to RnRMarketResearch, 70 percent of the turnover of biobased plastics and 40 percent of the paper/cardboard turnover is realised in the foods sector. As explained earlier, there can be a ‘natural’ fit between the product and its packaging. This sector is characterised moreover by large players, especially in the retail segment (Wal-Mart, Tesco, Ahold Delhaize, Aldi etcetera), but also on the supplier side with multinationals like Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nestlé. These enterprises have the scale and international presence to make the difference. Some enterprises have set up ‘coalitions’, such as a joint development platform for PEF, whose participants include Danone, Coca-Cola, Avantium and Alpha. PEF is a non-degradable bio-based plastic. Such platforms for degradable biobased plastics have not yet been set up. A few companies have taken concrete steps, however.

Mars wrapper

A well-known example is Mars, which, together with Rodenburg Biopolymers and Taghleef, has developed a biodegradable wrapper for its candy bars. The wrapper contains Solanyl C, a granulate based on potato starch (as residual product) and recycled PLA. ‘We have produced a compound which has properties similar to those of common packaging materials (e.g. PP) and which can be reused in production. That makes a big difference in the material costs,’ according to director Thijs Rodenburg. Other factors which interested Mars were the lower CO2 footprint of the material (-35%) and the lower energy costs of the production, namely 30%. ‘The fact that the material was biodegradable was more of an added bonus,’ according to Rodenburg. ‘That was not very important to the company because there was only a small chance that the consumers would understand it.’

Wrestling with communication

The last-named aspect is a major hurdle which both non-degradable and degradable bioplastics must take. Biodegradable does not by any means mean that packaging will decompose automatically. The materials can be degradable (potato starch, PBS or PHA), industrially degradable (PLA, through thermal treatment), or they can degrade in the soil or water (for example, PHA and starch).
‘It seems simple, but there are various blends – for example potato starch with PLA – which then result in different end-of-life scenarios,’ according to Jan Ravenstijn, consultant in bioplastics. ‘That is why producers of consumer products wrestle with the communication about such plastics, apart from the investments which these materials entail.’
But Ravenstijn does see real opportunities for biodegradable, that is, compostable biobased plastics, in the food sector. ‘Degradable foils for (refrigerated) fresh products have a good chance of succeeding. After all, they can be thrown in the compost bucket together with the offcuts and food leftovers.’

PHA, the ultimate degradable plastic

According to Ravenstijn, PHA types are the ultimate biodegradable biobased plastics: degradable in the soil and water, and of course industrially degradable at higher temperatures. ‘What is more, PHA blends have good film properties so that they can be used as cling films, foils or as bags, for example in the vegetable and fruit sector. The drawback is that PHA films are still too expensive as yet – compared with the PE standard – and are currently used for niche products such as biological fresh products. But it is a fact that certain PHA suppliers have lowered the kilogram price considerably: from around 5 euros per kilo to 2.30 euros. With the current oil price it does remain a difficult business case. Retailers and producers want to work more sustainably, but they take heed of every tenth of a eurocent when they buy packaging materials.’


That is why there is still no huge demand for degradable biobased packaging materials in the food sector. As stated, it is mainly (fresh) products with a short(er) lifespan for which these materials are suitable. A company like The Greenery, a major provider of fruits and vegetables in the Netherlands, uses them for its biological and sustainable products. ‘We especially use PLA foil and cardboard dishes from Paperwise. There is also an increasing trend to switch from plastic dishes to cardboard. We have also recently made cardboard boxes and dishes from the residual waste from tomato plants.’
According to The Greenery, consumers of biological products are willing to pay extra for biodegradable packaging. ‘The average consumer does not know enough about the material, which sees PLA land more often in the rubbish bag instead of in the recycling container.’

Nestlé unconvinced

The last example illustrates how the end of life of biodegradable plastics, compared with non-degradable biobased or fossil-based plastics, is also an issue. Questions about the sustainability level have indeed been raised from the industry.
Thus Sokhna Gueye, Packaging Environmental Sustainability Specialist at Nestlé, argues that the multinational focuses on reuse in order to combat plastic litter. To that aim, Nestlé concentrates on paper, cardboard and plastics. ‘We are also looking at renewable materials. Biodegradable plastics do create problems, especially at their end of life. Not every country has the infrastructure to compost these materials. As a globally operating producer, we cannot tell our consumers that these materials will be composted. So we do lose a product benefit.’
According to Gueye, it is questionable whether compostability is all that sustainable. After all, the material decomposes and the energy released goes into the air. Compared with recycling or recovering the energetic value, that is not really a circular business model.