Navigating the fast-changing landscape of bioplastics and biomaterials
From sugar to flax to algae, entrepreneurs and multinationals are racing to cultivate plant-based solutions meant to downplay the world's dependence on single-use plastics.
Edible seaweed pods that hold drinking water. Inedible banana leaves around perishable food. 3D printing from corn starch. Diapers made from eucalyptus wood.
Small and big companies looking to meet current buyer demand from consumers and retailers, swerve incoming regulatory levers and leverage recent technological innovations are pursuing new (but also, rather, incredibly old) solutions that downplay our reliance on petroleum-based plastics — alternatives that are sourced from plants.
The scope of the sources of these products is wide-ranging. In some cases — mostly for applications centered on packaging, consumer goods and some building materials — companies are seeking ways that fossil fuel-based plastics can be swapped out entirely for materials found in nature. In many "plant-based" products, though, the "plant" material is actually a form of bioplastic. These are materials created when the carbon in the carbon-containing compounds is sourced from plants rather than oil or gas, be it from corn to sugar to rice to vegetable oils instead. (While most bioplastics have a lower carbon footprint than conventional plastics on paper, there’s still a good deal of debate over whether sourcing from some of these crops diverts productive food. There is also considerable controversy around the fact that not all bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable.)
For some context: According to the market data compiled by the research institute nova-Institute and European Bioplastics, the industry association, global bioplastics production capacity is set to increase from around 2.11 million metric tons in 2018 to about 2.62 million metric tons in 2023. That's compared to about 335 million metric tons of petroleum-based plastic produced annually. So, while bioplastics represent less than 1 percent of the total market, their growth is projected at 20-30 percent per year. According to market research firms, the global bioplastics market recorded a market valuation of more than $4 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach a value of $14.92 billion by 2023.
The practice of using algae and seaweed as feedstocks for biomaterials is among the newer innovations. Algae is easy to grow and readily available, so using them as a base for plastics could make a lot of sense. In addition, a few entrepreneurs have developed algae-based biomaterials that could be used for 3D printing. That breakthrough could have major implications for the way consumer goods are bought, sold and packaged. That's because algae doesn't compete for agricultural land, can be made into bioplastics that are flexible and durable, is supposedly more resistant to microwave radiation and is almost always fully biodegradable in natural environments. This market is still developing because many products are still in their research phases, but here are some notable early standouts.
- Startup Algix’s algae-based foam called Bloom has been created from algal biomass. The foam has been used in H&M clothing, Adidas shoes, Mobius bags (which also contain recycled water bottles) and some other brands. The company also claims that through its technological process harvesting the algae, it helps filter water.
- The Indonesia-based company Evoware produces seaweed-based biodegradable packaging and even edible packaging solutions. They’re mostly food and hygiene product wraps that replace single-use plastics.
- The so-called "Edible Water Bubble" from Skipping Rock Lab is actually a seaweed pod called "Ooho!" If the blobs look familiar, that might be because they got a lot of press when they were used at the London Marathon this year as an eco-friendly option. They’re made by dipping a ball of ice into an algae material blend, which then forms a tasteless, edible, biodegradable, watertight membrane around it. Of course, the bubbles only have a shelf life of a few days, but they’re a great alternative to plastics.
Turning corn into bioplastics is extremely popular in the United States, given the crop’s massive commodity use. Corn starch can be turned into polylactic acid (PLA), a transparent, biodegradable thermoplastic polyester. It is also a biomaterial that can be used in 3D printing. Corn was one of the earliest crops to be converted into biomaterials, so products made from those materials have been widely commercialized — although the monoculture crop isn't always the best for the environment. Here are some notable corn-based ventures.
- NatureWorks is one of the biggest corn-based bioplastics companies, originally a joint venture between major chemical player Dow Chemical and food and commodities giant Cargill. Dow stepped aside and Thailand’s largest chemical producer, PTT Global Chemical, is the joint owner with Cargill. The company produces biopolymer Ingeo, used to make fibers and food packaging as well as electronics and films. You can find the material in the packaging of American retail titan Walmart and fast-food behemoth McDonald’s.
- From Crafting Plastics Studio, Nuatan is a compostable biomaterial that's created from corn starch polymerized by microorganisms. Supposedly, it has a lifespan up to 15 years and can withstand temperatures up to 110 degrees Celsius. It can be injection-molded, 3D-printed and blow-formed like traditional plastics, which could make it extremely useful as packaging.
- German PlayMais toys are made from sticky building blocks that are made from corn starch. Completely child-safe and compostable, they're an innovative way to avoid toxics around children.
Food and agricultural waste are attractive options as feedstocks for bioplastics because their production doesn’t compete with food production, can cut emissions from waste and fosters a more circular economy. Options and examples involving crops and foodstuffs come from all over the world, from avocado seeds to extra barley from beer brewing to mushrooms in molds. Here are some notable innovations.
- Biofase, a Mexican-based startup, is converting 15,000 metric tons of avocado seeds into bioplastics every day. It makes bio-based straws and cutlery to replace petroleum-based single-use plastics.
- Full Cycle Bioplastics in California is producing biomaterials from organic biomass such as food waste, crop residues such as stalks and inedible leaves, garden waste and unrecycled paper or cardboard. The material is compostable and marine-degradable — although the ocean is never the intended end-of-life for the materials — and can be used to make bags, containers, cutlery, water and shampoo bottles.
- New York-based Ecovative Design creates moldable biomaterials from agricultural waste. It gathers excess biomass, mixes it with the mycelium in molds and then literally grows it into the necessary shape. The material can be used for packaging, shoes and even in cell-based meat alternatives, including leather and food. Packaging giant Sealed Air is on board, as is sustainability-minded furniture retailer IKEA and e-waste fighter Dell.
- Speaking of IKEA, the company is teaming up with Neste to produce a bioplastic from vegetable oil and cooking oil. That material will be used to make IKEA's product catalog.
- Saltwater Brewery in Florida has developed an edible, biodegradable and compostable alternative material for plastic six-pack rings. It's actually made of barley and wheat remnants that are a byproduct of the brewing process.
- Banana leaves also can be used by local supermarkets as ways to avoid plastic and protect food from spoiling. This isn't actually that new an innovation — many types of food in Southeast Asia have long used banana leaves as natural food wraps. But using it in retail stores as a form of packaging could be an ideal way to avoid toxics and emissions from plastic manufacturing.
- Sustainable U.K.-based brand the Holy Lama is using palm leaves (natural waste products) from the areca palm to create "oyster-like" cases for their soaps. The leaves fall naturally from the areca palm, then they are collected and molded into the desired shape.
Wheatgrass, elephant grass and flax are all starchy bases that can be used as a source for many plant-based applications. Some related products and their creators include:
- The Pela case is a compostable iPhone case made of flax straw fiber, a waste product of oilseed, with other recycled materials.
- The startup NNRGY has turned wheatgrass — an inedible crop that sequesters carbon — into a biopolymer material it’s calling Vibers, as well as kitchenware products and various forms of packaging. and even bio-concrete.
Industrial hemp recently was legalized in the United States under the 2018 Farm Bill. It's quickly becoming an emerging market, for everything from building materials to textiles to consumer goods. Many startups are raising quick cash from venture capital sources, while other brands are taking formerly niche products mainstream, and many are looking to partner with bigger companies to make innovative new products.
- Hempitecture has been developing hempcrete as a building material. The biocomposite material is a mixture of hemp hurds (the woody inside portion of the hemp stalk) and lime and can be used for sustainable construction and insulation.
- Hemp has fibrous properties that make it a great textile. It's being used by hemp-specific brands such as Hempest, as well as bigger companies such as Patagonia for clothing, bags, jewelry and even Hemp Eyewear.
- Hemp is used in soaps because of its essential fatty acid (EFA) content, replacing petroleum-based oils and plastics. Dr. Bronner’s, the leading sustainable soap brand, uses hemp in many products.
Potatoes, as a starchy vegetable, are good candidates for plant-based plastics. Because potatoes provide carbohydrates as a food source, their use as a biomaterial is a bit controversial. Still, some companies have found success by capturing excess starch from potato product processing and blending amounts of the material with other sources.
- BioLogiQ invented NuPlastiQ bioPolymers by using the starch byproduct from potato processing plants. If you’ve bought potatoes in bulk, the scratchy, net-like bag they come in is actually called a Tatermade Bag, and it’s made of, you guessed it, potato-based NuPlastiq.
- U.K.-based bioplastics manufacturer Biome Bioplastics developed a takeaway coffee cup that’s biodegradable made from a blend of potato starch, corn starch and cellulose. With estimates that 2.5 billion takeaway cups are thrown away each year, and less than 1 percent recycled, a cup that biodegrades could be a game-changer.
- Solanyl Biopolymers Inc. converts extra Simplot potato waste into biodegradable plastic polymers that can be used to replace conventional single-use disposables, such as packaging, plant pots or cutlery.
- Toyota also looked at bioplastics from starch-rich sweet potatoes to make its Prius Eco-Plastic resin. How? Enzymes break down the starch, turning it into sugar, which is fermented to produce lactic acid that's then made into PLA.
Soybeans and soybean oil can be used for a variety of alt-plastics, from industrial uses such as foams, adhesives, coatings and inks to consumer end uses such as personal care product thickeners, edible films and even in meat alternative foods. Soy-based bioplastics are incredibly versatile, and depending on the chemical makeup of the biomaterial, they can take on different durabilities and strengths. That also means, however, that not all are biodegradable nor compostable. Hundreds of companies use soy as plant-based products, so here's a just a brief sampling.
- Fun fact: Henry Ford actually built an original model of the Ford Model T with a bioplastic body made of soy in 1942. But as the price of petroleum fell, the industry quickly switched to use the fossil fuels for plastics instead. Currently, though, the company uses a soy-based foam in the seatbacks and cushions in its cars. (A quick shoutout: Ford is also working with José Cuervo, the tequila company, to turn an agave byproduct from the tequila production process into bioplastics for various vehicle components.)
- The tire company Goodyear has used a soy oil-based compound in its tire treads, as a replacement for traditional petroleum oil. The product will be commercially available soon, says the company.
- Eco-company EarthGrown Crayons uses soy wax in their coloring products as a nontoxic alternative to plastics (most crayons are made with petroleum-based paraffin wax).
- Manufacturer Cox Industries has Soybase Clean, a line of soy-based and biodegradable industrial cleaning and degreasing products.
- Soysilk uses the soybean residue from tofu manufacturing to make textiles. It's sold as hand-dyed yarn and in warehouses, and creators make artisan clothing from it.
Sugar has unique chemical properties that can be turned into a variety of alternative plastics. Sugar cane, sugar beet and bagasse (sugar cane residues that can be fermented) are all extremely popular sources due to their starchiness. They can be used as building blocks for the bioplastic PLA, the most popular type of bioplastic. Its uses range from industrial applications to packaging to cosmetics.
Some major players and notable startups:
- Braskem is a Brazilian-based petrochemical company that uses Brazilian sugar cane to make bioplastics. It’s the world’s largest biopolymer producer, producing polyethylene from sugar cane-based ethanol, which is non-biodegradable but recyclable. The material can be used in manufacturing processes, often to make packaging. However, the company’s use of ethanol and its lack of accreditation for sustainable agricultural practices in the sugar it uses have raised some environmentalists’ red flags.
- One of the most well-known sugar cane-based products within recent years has been Coca-Cola’s sugar cane-based PET bottle called PlantBottle about a decade ago. The bottle originally was 30 percent plant-based and not biodegradable but recyclable. The company since has announced that it’s still working on getting to 100 percent renewable but is investing in R&D around the bottle.
- The sugar cane-based material used to make PlantBottle was also used in Heinz and Proctor & Gamble packaging, some Nike products and the interior of the Ford Fusion’s Energi Plug-In Hybrid.
- The massive chemical producer BASF also has developed a compostable sugar-based bioplastic, ecovio, that can be made into anything from agricultural film to compostable coffee capsules.
- Lego has been testing new renewable-sourced plastics — notably made from sugar cane — in order to remake its signature block more sustainably.
- BioPak is an Australian startup using sugar cane to produce bioplastic food packaging supplies, mostly as a B2B service to other companies. It’s also investing in the composting system of municipalities around Australia (after facing some blowback that the products are biodegradable, compostable and recyclable, but the systems throughout the country aren’t ideal).
- France-based Lyspackaging is another startup that’s producing sugar-based packaging, this in the form of the Veganbottle. It’s industrially compostable and an alternative to the 50 billion water bottles purchased per year (and that’s only in the United States).
- BIO-ON is an Italian bioplastics company that makes sugar-based bioplastics with a range of applications. Most recently, the company announced a partnership with Unilever to create plant-based sunscreen.
- Anandi Eco+ is an Indian-based that uses locally sourced bagasse, banana fiber, water hyacinth and jute to create sanitary pads.
Wood from a variety of tree species has long been a natural substance used for building materials and other products. It's not a "new" solution to plastics, per se, but different types of wood-based pulps and composites can provide equally durable and moldable products that are being explored and developed as alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.
You could debate whether this approach is more sustainable than the alternative: responsible sourcing of the lumber and timber is critical — deforestation is another leading cause of climate change. Still, a variety of wood products from different kinds of trees are cropping up, from palm to bamboo to eucalyptus to traditional lumber sources.
- German company Tecnaro created a bioplastic called Arboform, derived from wood pulp-based lignin that can be mixed with hemp, flax or wood fibers and other additives such as wax to create what it calls "liquid wood": it can be injected into molds such as plastic, yet biodegrades over time. Some mockups of product options include gears and tools, as well as an entirely wooden bicycle.
- Origin Materials uses wood or wood-based products, among other materials, to produce what it claims is the "world's first carbon-negative PET." It's already partnering with Nestlé Waters, Danone and PepsiCo, which are all set to use the material in their bottles.
- Dyper produces eco-based diapers made from bamboo that are biodegradable and avoid potential toxics from plastics.
- Bamboo-based toothbrushes are also gaining in popularity — several are available as eco-products, online and in stores, via brands such as BrushWithBamboo and Green Root Bamboo Toothbrushes.
- Biodegradable ... glitter? The cosmetic and craft shiny particles are traditionally made from plastic. The brands Blue Sun and partner, Cosmetic Bioglitter, both have used eucalyptus sources to create plastic-alternatives that biodegrade in natural environments.
- Materials research institute Scion engineered a water-soluble, biobased and sustainable adhesive wood material. It's made from lignin, tannin and protein and can be used to manufacture engineered wood products with a reduced life-cycle impact compared with products made using traditional petrochemical adhesives.
- Packaging company Tetra Pak has created hybrid carton bottles made mostly of paper and plant-derived plastics to sell bottled water called Just Water.
While the world of "plant-based" products is still relatively young, the field is growing — fast. With the breakneck pace of technological developments and growing investment in the bioeconomy, businesses should expect to see far more bioplastics options on the market soon.