Industrial analyzers of the ITIS Program, FIRDI:

Huang, Chiu-Hsiang

With the continuous rise of energy prices and the improvement of enterprises’ awareness of effective control of carbon emission and consumers’ awareness of environmental protection, the industry of green packaging, light package, recycled package and biodegradable package, for instance, develops rapidly. Biodegradable plastic is a kind of packaging material degradable by microbes in a natural environment with proper humidity, oxygen and microbes; Today, countries including US, UK and Japan have the most competitive advantages in the R&D of biodegradable plastics, this article in intended to discuss the current situation and trend of relevant products as a reference for the industry.

Biodegradable Plastics Develop Rapidly

According to a recent study by the European Bioplastics (EP) and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE), Biodegradable Plastics may replace about 90 percent of traditional petroleum plastics. Due to the great fluctuation of petroleum price, relevant manufacturers are seeking for alternative packaging materials, however, biodegradable plastics cannot reach high rate of popularization due to factors like high production cost, low productivity and different laws and regulations in different countries.

Biodegradable plastics mainly made of starch and Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) (about 80%), as estimated by the European Bioplastics that in 2013, the global productivity of biodegradable plastics will be 2.3 million tons, showing the annual growth rate of 37%, and by 2020, the productivity of different biodegradable plastics will be ordered as follows: starch plastic (1.3 million tons), PLA (800,000 tons), bio-based polyethylene (600,000 tons). The world’s major manufacturers of biodegradable plastics include Purac, DuPont, Cargill, Natureworks LLC, Mirel, Musashino Chemical Laboratory, Ltd., etc.

Because of the high demand of consumers for biodegradable packaging materials, preference of governmental agencies to such products for monitoring of environment and the demand for composting infrastructure in West Europe, West European countries is the world’s largest market of biodegradable plastics, accounting for about 40 of the market share. However, according to the reports of the World Bioplastics, in 2013, Asia Pacific will be the world’s largest market of biodegradable plastics, especially Japan, which pays much attention to the R&D of alternative materials of traditional plastic.

Criteria in Different Countries Vary

The global production of biodegradable plastics is centralized in North America, West Europe and Japan, and Brazil will be a leading producer of the world in the future for its abundant resources of crops. Different countries have different criteria for biodegradable plastics, as for biodegradable plastic bottles containing plant materials, for example, in Denmark, it is stipulated that packages must contain 50 percent of recycled plastic and 15% of plant materials, while in the US and Canada, 30% of plant materials is necessary.

There are multiple inspection institutions around the world, such as Din Certco Ibaw of Germany, AIB Vincotte of Belgium, BPI of USA and BPS of Japan, which have different criteria on the inspection items of biodegradable plastics, such as chemical and composting tests, complete biodegradability test, concentration detection of ingredients, decomposition time and degree, etc., so operators of relevant business should pay attention to the differences.

Multinational Food Manufacturers Actively Invest in the R&D

In 2009, Coca-Cola Company launched the recyclable PET bottles containing 30% whose main sources are sugar and honey, which made Coca-Cola the world’s first beverage company to have developed plastic bottles with plant materials, and it is estimated that the company will produce 2 billion PET bottles by 2010. The ultimate goal of Coca-Cola is to produce recyclable plastic bottles from nonedible food materials and plant waste, such as wood chips and straw, because such packages have lower carbon emission than traditional PET bottles.

In the meanwhile, Nestlé has applied biodegradable plastics to the packaging of products like noodles, soups and sauces in some Asian markets, in addition, it sponsors a study on the development of raw materials and industrial application of biodegradable plastics so as to improve the quality and safety of relevant packaging materials and to improve the image of enterprises in term of environmental protection.

Taiwan’s Biodegradable Plastics Industry is in the Embryonic Stage

Since 2007, the Environmental Protection Administration, Executive Yuan has implemented the “Limitation on the Use of Plastic Trays and Packages”, if retailers cannot reduce the consumption of such packages, they are suggested to use alternative materials made of paper or plant fiber, etc., at present, such alternative materials are mainly made of PLA, about 70% of containers in Taiwan have adopted PLA packages. Since patents on microbial fermentation technologies of PLA are controlled by foreign enterprises, most raw materials used at home are imported from Cargill of USA, therefore, operators of Taiwan must sign agreements on product development and marketing to introduce the technologies for production.

Since the heat resistance and expandability of PLA cannot be compared with traditional plastics, its scope of application cannot be extended, which has led to low productivity, high product prices, although promoted by the awareness of environmental protection, PLA packages are still limited to high-price end food. In the future, domestic industry should actively develop independent patented technologies, explore other sources of raw materials for biodegradable packages, make good use of domestic agricultural products or waste and avoid competing with food in term of raw materials. In addition, PLA packages will be recycled as of March 2010, package operators should provide clear mark of recycling o the packages to distinguish such packages from other plastic containers so as to truly achieve the goal of energy saving and carbon reduction.