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Compostable disposables in food service still form a relatively small market, but certainly one with prospects for the future. Out-of-home consumption is rising again, and market parties are looking for more sustainable alternatives to standard materials such as PE and PP.
Lucien Joppen

The European market for (industrially compostable) ‘biodegradable food service disposables’ in 2015 amounted to no less than one billion US dollars (converted to 2017 currency: 900 million euros). According to Persistence Market Research (PMR) which supplied this data, this market will grow in Europe with a CAGR of 5.5 percent, resulting in a turnover in 2022 of approximately 1.4 billion dollars. The above market is segmented into plates, trays/containers, cutlery, cups/dishes and the so-called clam shells (editor’s note: container with the lid attached to the container and which can flip shut). The largest segment as regards turnover is concerned is formed by the cups/dishes, with a share of 33.7 percent. PMR expects that this segment will dominate the biodegradable disposable market (BDM) in the coming five years.

Paper is dominant material

When you look at the raw materials used for BDM materials, what is striking is that paper is by far the largest segment. PMR did not provide any details when asked for current data. It does expect that paper will achieve a turnover in 2022 of 1.2 billion dollars (of the total of 1.4 billion). Wood/leafy products and bioplastics account for the rest of the market. PMR predicts growth mainly in the last segment, driven by developments in PLA, PHA and potato starch-based plastics, among other things. PMR sees the expected growth of the BDM market through a heightened consumer awareness of more sustainable plastics with a more environmentally friendly end-of-life scenario (editor’s note: more on this later).

Active approach in Italy

The research agency also observes that food service providers are increasingly making their business more sustainable. Thus McDonald’s has exchanged foam packaging for cardboard, which moreover is made from 70 percent recycled material. Finally, the laws and regulations in some countries cater to the purpose of compostable plastics/materials. For instance Italy, a country with a long coastline, hopes to combat plastic pollution in and around the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas by taxing fossil plastics and giving preference to compostable plastics. It remains to be seen whether this measure will be successful in combating litter and the plastic soup problem. These plastics still have to be collected and then composted. Worse still, consumers might be more inclined to throw away compostable plastics, on the assumption that the composting is a natural process and not an industrial one.

Larger and wider range

The growth – especially that of biobased polymers and plastics – is also driven by the larger and wider range. For example, Natureworks has launched the necessary innovations in the PLA segment and consequently broadened the application area considerably. Product parameters such as heat resistance, flexibility and stability are still necessary for many food service applications. A bowl should not bend under a certain load, for example, or become softer because of hot food like soup. According to Natureworks, their High Heat Technology guarantees that PLA for disposable applications like plates, cups and cutlery is a good (and especially more sustainable) alternative for PP and PE.

Ice-cream containers

Synbra and its sister company Synprodo are another player which has developed polymers for compostable disposables. The company created BioFoam, a 100 percent biobased and compostable alternative for EPS, which it has put on the market. Director Jan Noordegraaf: ‘EPS is used in food service and retail for things like ice-cream containers. This is quite a considerable market in a country like Italy, home of gelato. EPS has the largest part, but the share of BioFoam (editor’s note: E-PLA) is growing. The attractive legislation for disposables in Italy and also in France is the main thing which is making the market come round already. Another growth factor, albeit smaller, is the growth of biological food. Some of our customers in this market, for example in Germany, prefer biodegradable materials. As indicated earlier, these products will not reduce litter. Only draconian penalties, as in Singapore, have any effect. These kinds of products do generally have a much lower carbon footprint.’

Complete ranges

Bioplastics have now conquered a permanent position on the disposables market. There are even complete ranges available. Thus Van der Windt, part of the Pacombi Group, launched Biodore last year. The brand offers a total of more than 150 items which are based on various raw materials, such as cardboard, (C)PLA, starch and natural fibres. ‘We work with different producers around the world,’ says Huib Burggraaf, biobased packaging specialist with the company. ‘All our products are certified, for instance via the FSC quality mark or Vincotte for the compostability. We supply to retail, food service and other distributors. We have been on the market for a good year now and the turnover has grown 50 percent. Granted, anything that is small grows fast, but we are growing faster than expected.’

Festival market opportunities

Burggraaf believes that the growth is mainly to be found in the food service market. The emergence of higher-quality concepts, like Bram Ladage (higher end fast food chain), have made businesses in this market more open to more attractive and more sustainable presentation. ‘Appearance is also important. It does make quite a difference whether you present a dish on a pressed palm leaf or a PE dish,’ according to Burggraaf. He also sees growth opportunities in festival catering. Every year the numerous (summer) festivals in the Netherlands attract more than 23 million visitors. ‘The organisers often try to outdo each other in sustainability. One part of that is keeping the CO2 footprint as low as possible. They can achieve that partly by using biobased disposables.’ Burggraaf does admit that Biodore still makes up only a fraction of the total turnover in disposables. In view of the embryonic state of the market, that is hardly surprising. ‘The bulk still comes from fossil origins. But we also have a range here called Bright which performs better in terms of the environment (editor’s note: 19 impact factors) than conventional materials. It’s one way we can also upgrade the mid-market.’

Price premiums

The Biodore range consists of compostable as well as non-compostable materials. Van der Windt informs its customers which products can and cannot be composted. The Rotterdam company Bio Futura carries exclusively compostable disposables. ‘We only use starch-based plastics, sometimes in combination with PLA,’ according to director Wouter Moekotte. ‘We also carry disposables produced on the basis of sugarcane fibre, palm leaves and cardboard. Recently we made an exception: a screw cap made from bio-PE for a bottle which is otherwise made entirely from PLA. We needed a harder material for this application. Of course, we will encourage the separate collection of the bottles and caps among the users.’ Similar to Van der Windt, Bio Futura sources its biobased disposables from all over the world. The producers are often the same as the ‘fossil’ counterparts. But the pricing shows the essential difference. ‘The price premiums we charge through to our customers vary from 20 to 50 percent. For natural fibre products this is between 20 and 30 percent. For that they get a more sustainable and in some cases better product as well, because it has a better appearance or better properties, for example, higher oxygen barrier.’

Focus on price

The above price differences and the lack of clear national laws and regulations especially are keeping biodisposables in the niche and out of the mainstream. Marcea van Doorn, sustainability category manager at Bunzl, an international supplier of disposables: ‘Most customers, that is, the large catering businesses, focus on price because their clients in the business community and institutional sector count every cent. There is some space, especially in the added value concepts such as Marqt and smaller businesses. But that is not where the large volumes are to be found yet. I do see that the larger players in the catering market are switching increasingly to more sustainable disposables, for example by replacing plastics with cardboard.’ Van Doorn suggests that the returns logistics is also an obstacle for the customer. After all, the compostable products still have to be transported to a processing plant. That is a real issue. There are organisations, especially hospitals, which want to make some of the medical materials compostable and then convert them into energy. If they also make their food-related disposables compostable, they increase the efficiency of their biogas plants. If this trend continues, it will mean another new and larger market for ‘biodisposables.’