Biobased plastics, from biomass to the market

Biobased plastics appear today as an alternative to the use of petroleum polymers. Indeed, to tackle the environmental challenges generated by the fossil resources extraction, they are one of the ways to reduce some impacts of the plastic production on our environment.

Not necessarily biodegradables, they thus permit in many cases to free from the use of oil as raw material.

 

Biobased plastics: definition

When the term biobased is used as it is defined by the standard EN 16575:2014, we consider the part of the product that comes from the biomass. This origin can be total or partial, as of today, the minimum rate that should contain a material to benefit from this appellation is not mentioned by any standards.

To produce biobased polymers, biomass from different activities like the agriculture or the agri-food industry is used. In the various steps of processing the biomass, bacterial fermentation of sugars from various origins is the key point.

It is in fact through these procedures that the building block molecules for green chemistry are obtained, which can be used as monomers for producing biobased plastics.
The biomasses used can be very diverse and are in general classified, notably by generation according to their way of production or obtention:

  • 1st generation (using food resources):
    • Vegetable oils: soybean, palm, sunflower, castor beans, colza, etc.
    • Starch: corn, wheat, potato, tapioca, etc.
    • Glucose: sugar cane, beetroot, etc.
  • 2nd generation (using non-food resources)
    • Lignocellulosic biomass: wood, by-products or waste material from agriculture or wood (bagasse from sugarcane, straw, etc.)
    • Municipal waste material: organic waste, waste water, etc.
  • 3rd generation (soil-less farming, non-food resources)
    • Micro-organisms: Micro-algae, bacteria, mushrooms, yeasts, etc.

For several years now, the use of first generation biomass has been controversial due to the potential competition with human and animal food, as well as the impact on the surface of the agricultural land used.
Nonetheless, the biomass culture dedicated for the plastics production is today negligible and only represents 0.02% of the arable lands.

 

biobased plastics

 

Furthermore, the development of these plastics should not increase the agricultural surface necessary to their production. As a matter of fact, with the use of second and third generation biomasses, currently under development and industrialization, raw materials will need less and less food resources as well as soil surfaces.

Today, numerous projects are looking for the production of polymers like PHAs from waste (see URBIOFIN and WOW! projects) in order to limit the use of noble raw material, to increase waste valorization and to promote circular economy.

 

Materials and standards

Biobased plastics currently represent the majority of the bioplastics produced in the world (read our last update). Some are chemically equivalent to existing polymers (biobased PET, PE or PA), on the contrary, some have innovative structures and are often biodegradables (PLA, PHA, PBS, etc.) even if these two functionalities are not linked.

Two standards are mostly used to quantify the content of renewable resources in biobased plastics:

  • Standard ASTM D6866 / ISO 16620-2 which determines the content of renewable carbons in a solid, liquid or gas by a radiocarbon analysis. Nonetheless, this standard only takes into account carbon atoms.
  • Standard EN 16785-1 which determines the content of biobased elements through a radiocarbon and an elementary analysis. This standard also takes into account oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms.

These standards are a way to certify the content of biobased elements in raw materials, compounds or end products.

Different labels commercialized by certification organisms allow also to communicate on the results, generally from a 20% biobased content.

 

Benefits to use biobased plastics

The main benefit to the use of biobased plastics is an environmental one. Indeed, their production partial or total from biomass allows to be more competitive on environmental criteria like climate change (greenhouse gas emissions) or the use of fossil resources (read our article on this topic). They are a way to enhance biomass recovery (waste, by-products, etc.) while reducing the dependency of the plastic sector to petroleum.

 

biobased plastics

 

From a technical point of view, biobased plastics which have an identical structure to petroleum-based polymers will have the same properties and will only need a small investment for their use. With regards to those which have new “innovative” structure, they have specific properties which allow them to gain new functionalities like biodegradability in some cases.

 

About us: NaturePlast is a french company based in Normandy (IFS-14), specialized in bioplastics. With more than 10 years of experience in this field, the company has the most extensive portfolio of raw materials and biobased and/or biodegradable compounds in Europe. With its daughter company BiopolyNov, they provide support to industrialists from the origin to the industrialisation of their innovative project. Thanks to their R&D expertise acquired during the years, NaturePlast and BiopolyNov are renowned major player in the development and production of formulations for clients and collaborative projects.