Biodegradable Polymers (Introduction , Overview and Market Dynamics)

Introduction to biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable polymers are bio-based as well as synthetic polymers that can degrade (undergo microbial decomposition to carbon dioxide and water). Most of the decomposition takes place in industrial or compost facilities. Some of the polymers decompose in backyard compost bins or in soil, freshwater, or saltwater. Biodegradable plastics are produced by a wide variety of technologies from renewable resources and from plant and vegetable sources like corn, maize, sugar-cane, palm oil, soya and potatoes. Some biodegradable plastics are also made from mineral oil. One of the major benefits of the biodegradable polymers is that it reduces the amount of waste plastics sent to the landfills. Most of the biodegradable plastics are processed by injection moulding, extrusion and thermoforming. To improve their tensile strength, bio-plastic polymers can be blended with their co-polymers or with other polymers.

The actions of living organisms degrade the biodegradable polymer. The biodegradable polymers were largely commercialized in1980s. At that point of time, most of these first-generation biodegradable polymers were not able to undergo complete degradation. After this, new plastics were introduced in the later years which were able to completely degrade. Further, most of these plastics were highly-priced in comparison to other petrochemical-based commodity plastics.

As of the last analysis in 2018, there was overcapacity in almost all of the types of biodegradable polymers especially starch-based plastics and polylactic acid (PLA). It is understood that most of the major players are currently working towards bringing down the cost of production of PLAs, starch-based plastics and other biodegradable plastics by increasing production capacity, improving process technology, and using low-cost raw materials.

The global demand for biodegradable plastics was estimated to be around ##### kilotons in 2018 and is forecast to grow at an annual average of 13.6% during the forecast period 2019 – 2025. It is estimated that the bio-degradable plastics account for almost 44% of the world s bio-plastics market. Bio-plastics account for around 1% of the total plastics produced globally. Packaging application dominates the biodegradable plastic market with PLA and starch based plastics blends being majorly consumed. Other major applications of biodegradable plastics include consumer goods, agricultural and textile applications. All other applications like electrical &electronics, automotive, building & construction together account for around 10.6% of the total demand.

The increase in the use of biodegradable plastics is driven by the increasing demand for environmental-friendly and sustainable products by consumers. Awareness of the environment and the need to reduce fossil fuel dependency has also driven the biodegradable plastic market. With the increasing use of biodegradable polymers in all application areas, the market is expected to grow at a faster rate in almost all regions of the world. The demand for biodegradable polymers is expected to rise during the forecast period as there is a growth in its use with more sophisticated biopolymers, applications and products emerging through the development of innovative materials.

Biodegradable plastics commercially available can be classified as

•  Naturally Biodegradable Polymers
•  Synthetic Biodegradable
•  Modified Naturally Biodegradable Polymers

The major type of biodegradable plastics covered in the study include

•  Starch Based Plastic
•  Polylactic Acid (PLA)
•  Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA)
•  Polycaprolactone (PCL)
•  Polybutylene Succinate (PBS)
•  Regenerated Cellulose
•  Others

Market Dynamics - (Drivers, Restraints, Opportunities, and Challenges)


The growth opportunities for biodegradable and bioplastics is primarily linked with the industry’s drive for production for packaging applications and its growth in consumer goods, textile, agricultural applications and other new and emerging applications.

Growth in Packaging and other end-user industries 

Packaging is the largest and one of the fastest-growing applications for biodegradable plastics. The sector accounts for more than 63%of the total demand in 2018 and is expected to grow at an annual average of 11.9% during the long-term forecast. With a certain set of standards and certification procedure for biodegradable packaging and increased pressure of regulatory and environmental protection agencies in most of the major countries of the world, the use of PLA, Starch-based plastics, PHA and other bio-plastics to make bottles, containers, blister packaging will continue to rise during the long-term forecast. Packaging has shown higher growth than the GDP of most of the countries around the world. With expected high growth in the Asian packaging industry due to growing industrialization and purchasing habits in the region, the global packaging market is expected to witness fast growth during the forecast period. The factors that are likely to push the demand growth upwards include increasing disposable income and rapid urbanization. Western European countries decided to reduce the consumption of thin-film plastic bags significantly will also push for the production of more biodegradable bags thereby increasing the demand for biodegradable plastics like PLA and starch blends.

With new investment in biodegradable plastics like PLA, PHA, and starch blend thermoplastics sector globally and in the Asia-Pacific region, and with industries like packaging and manufacturing that are shifting their base to Asian countries, the demand of biodegradable plastics in these sectors will increase during the long-term. Other emerging applications like medical and others will also push the demand upward while some growth is also expected from the electrical & electronics and automotive sector, where plastics now account for 16% of the weight and is expected to reach 25%  during the forecast period.

Favourable government policies and shift in consumer preference towards sustainable and green materials/products

Increased awareness about environmental concerns, usage of sustainable products and eco-friendly materials has resulted in a shift in preference towards adopting biodegradable polymers. This is gradually replacing conventional petrochemical-based plastics as these materials degrade completely without any other catalyst and do not produce any harmful emissions or has any adverse effect on the environment. The use of bioplastics is increasing in almost all of the applications in double-digit growth, especially in packaging related applications like food packaging and compostable bags.

Increase in waste management regulations in Europe related to landfill and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other related organizations for food safety, is also promoting the usage of bio-degradable plastics in food packing& beverage industry. 

Others major driver of biodegradable plastics include:

•  Innovations in the food & beverage industry
•  Increasing use of biodegradable plastics as substituent in the building & construction industry
•  Growing purchasing power in developing economies & growth of key end-use sectors like automotive and electrical & electronics and consumer goods.
•  Comparatively reduced environmental risk
•  New research and development, innovation in biodegradable applications in medical implants and drug delivery systems
•  Increased demand and higher penetration of bio-based products in Asia
•  Government initiatives, incentives & promotion of biodegradable products

High Pricing
Historically, the prices of biodegradable polymers have been very high in comparison to petrochemical-based plastics. The prices have also fluctuated, when the supply of plastic resins decreases, the prices of biodegradable plastics appear to be more competitive. As the plastic resin prices shoot up during that period. Though this trend has not continued for a longer time. Though the prices of PLA, starch blends, PHA and other biodegradable plastics have declined in comparison to the last 10 years owing to the selection of low-cost raw materials and efficient production process, the prices are still high in comparison to other commodity plastics like PE and PET. The high prices act as a restraint in the growth of biodegradable plastics.


Price reductions
The major opportunities in biodegradable plastics sectors lie reducing the prices of the biopolymers to make it more competitive like the commodity conventional plastics. The pricing is one of the major restraints in the development of biodegradable plastics market. Some of the ways to reducing the cost include more production capacity and development in new technology. Proper sourcing of raw materials could also increase productivity and economic performance. This will help in decreasing the prices to make it competitive with commodity plastics. Prices can be brought down through better production techniques, better material sourcing by suppliers and higher production volumes. Historically, certain starch-based and PLA biopolymers were competitive with standard thermoplastics such as PET. Focused effort in producing Cost-Effective biodegradable plastic packaging is an opportunity

Increasing range development in new applications
Widening the range of applications particularly in medical, electrical & electronics and automotive applications can drive global biodegradable demand. Various developments have been by companies to cover niche applications and discover new applications in association with institutes and start-ups. With the development of newer grades for high end applications, the opportunities in the biodegradable plastics market is expected to immense.

•  Segregation and Processing of biodegradable plastics
•  Performance related issues
•  Fluctuation in crude oil and raw material prices.
•  High Capacity to demand ratio that will have surplus / ample of supply
•  Changing Trends & Conditions in End-use Industries
•  Ban on so called biodegradable plastics (which are actually, partially or non-biodegradables) 

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