PHA: plastic the way nature intended?

For global manufacturers, the realities of the fate their products at end-of-life is starting to hit home. Even in developed countries with well-established waste management infrastructure, startling volumes of products end up in landfill. The negative environmental consequences of plastics have come under particularly strong scrutiny. Where plastic recycling does occur, it rarely produces materials of a sufficient quality to re-enter manufacturing processes at the same value.

There are very good reasons why plastics are used so pervasively in manufacturing: they are versatile, cheap, lightweight and durable materials. But what if you could have all of these benefits, without the environmental baggage? Could bioplastics fit the bill? Could we replace fossil fuel-derived polymers with plastics that have been made from renewable resources and/or could biodegrade naturally at the end of their life?

The potential for substitution

Today the scale of bioplastics production is dwarfed by conventional plastics; bioplastics represent only about 1% of total plastics production.[1] But production is growing fast and the range of conventional polymers that can be substituted in some applications is also widening. The most common biopolymer, PLA (polylactic acid), can replace PS (polystyrene), PP (polypropylene) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) are an emerging biopolymer class with a very wide range of technical properties, enabling them to substitute for a wide range of conventional polymers.

Figure 1: Example polymer applications and potential for substitution with commercially available PHA biopolymers

The bioplastics “oops” moments

Some of the early biopolymer pioneers came up against unexpected challenges. Attempts to introduce PLA drinks bottles failed since composting infrastructure was not yet in place, a problem compounded by significant pushback from recyclers concerned about bioplastics contaminating their existing processes. And the world’s first bioplastic crisp packet had to be abandoned after customers complained they were “too noisy.” I don’t mention these examples to criticise – at Cambridge Consultants we believe that radical innovation is risky and project failures are a demonstration that the innovation process is working. Rather I would applaud these early efforts to introduce biopolymers as without market pull there would have been significantly less investment in developing the downstream process technology.

What about biopolymers in the context of my business?

Biopolymer manufacturing processes and technical applications have progressed significantly in recent years. And coupled with the increasingly negative public perception of plastics and the threat of punitive regulations, the time for evaluating the opportunities for bioplastics feels right.

But evaluating the opportunity for bioplastics in a specific business context requires evaluation of a host of commercial viability, technical feasibility and customer desirability questions. Many organisations may not have the internal capabilities and/or resources for this task. We can provide an independent assessment to companies when they are considering alternative materials, answering questions such as:

  • How do we prepare and adapt to future bioplastics development and market trends?
  • When and where should we invest in bioplastics technology or adopt bioplastics in our innovation processes?
  • Would switching to bioplastics save carbon?
  • Would switching to bioplastics negatively impact existing recycling infrastructure?
  • Does the production of feedstocks for bioplastics manufacture compete for land with food production?
  • Would switching to bioplastics add cost to my business?
  • Is there a secure and diversified supply base for bioplastics?

For more information on polyhydroxyalkanoate bioplastics, request our white paper: PHA: plastics the way nature intended?

Author
Catherine Joce
Consultant

Catherine is a Consultant in the Strategy, Innovation and Process group, focussed identification and implementation of strategic opportunities for sustainable innovation.