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Bioplastics

August 13, 2023

“I just want to say one word to you…Plastics…There’s a great future in plastics.” This famous line from the 1967 movie, The Graduate, definitly rings true. Synthetic plastics largely began being used during World War II as natural resources need to be preserved. Following the war years, the plastic producing capacity spilled out to consumer markets. In 1950, annual global production of plastics is estimated to be 2 million tonnes (2 billion kg). By 2019, that figure is estimated to have reached 470 million tonnes (470 billion kg). Plastics are moldable, resiliant, lightweight and cheap. They are found in everything from clothing to coatings for kitchenware to automobile components. Of course, they also have more frivilous uses, like disposable grocery bags, takeout utensils and plastic straws. Convenient, yes, but necessary, probably not.

While many plastics can be recycled, many can’t and they inevitably end up in landfulls. Or they require special trips to recycle properly (in the US, plastic bags can be recycled at grocery stores, but that requires much more effort than tossing them into a recycling bin). And even if care is taken to recycle and propery dispose of plastic items, they may still end up in rivers and oceans.

But given how integral plastics are to daily life, they probably won’t go away any time soon. It is no wonder there has been an increased effort in producing more sustainable plastics that can biodegrade by using plant-based inputs (ironically, the first plastic was made in 1869 from cotton cellulose). While many bioplastics won’t biodegrade naturally and require industrial composting, they do eliminate the use of fossil fuels in their production. The desire for increased sustainability means that bioplastics will be seeing more growth ahead (see chart below).

ImageChangingWorldBioplastics.png

Though bioplastics may seem like a great choice for many applications, including single-use containers and packaging, there are some setbacks:

  • Bioplastics can cost 20%-50% more than conventional plastics made of fossil fuels. The cost is expected to come down as demand and capacity increase

  • If not disposed of properly, they may in fact harm sustainability initiatives. For example, compostable plastics can contaminate recycling initiatives, and throwing biodegradable plastic in a poorly areated landfill can lead to increased methane production

  • Sugar, corn, and other plants used for bioplastics need agricultural land. With an ever-growing global population, that means less land available for food. (However, there has recently been some success in making bioplastic out of seaweed, which could help alleviate the land problem.)

Most of the producers of bioplastics are global chemicals companies, such as Gemany’s BASF and France’s TotalEnergies Corbion. While bioplastics are just one component of what these companies do, it may likely become a growing part of their revenue streams. For Somar, what is more interesting is the niche players in the space that may eventually go public due to the ever-increasing demand for eco-friendly products. We watch these new companies with great interest for they could be great investments, or just great stories with no substance. Regardless, being able to order an item for home delivery without as much plastic guilt will be great.

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