Biopolymers are breaking the mold of environmentally unfriendly plastic materials and fueling future growth, according to Lux Research. A new generation of biologically derived materials and processes promises to break that mold by delivering many of the traditional benefits of plastic materials while closing the ecological loop.
The report notes that biopolymers currently represent only 1% of global plastics revenues and perhaps 0.1% in terms of volume. However, biopolymer initiatives have become a top priority at major chemical companies like Dow Chemical, Bayer and BASF. As dozens of start-ups and even major agricultural players like Cargill have entered the arena, today's US$1 bln biopolymer market will see double-digit growth in the coming years. However, the report counsels caution as well, noting that biopolymers must be effective and economical, not just ecologically sound, to see widespread adoption. Lux Research's report provides a guide for forecasting biopolymer adoption in various material applications. Based on analysis of industry literature, material data sheets and primary interviews with key developers, the report assigns composite scores for traditional polymers and biomaterials. Its scores reflect how each material compares in terms of performance, economic competitiveness and ecological profile. Among its notable conclusions:
Effective performance is a secondary consideration. Many plastic products such as toothbrush handles, product packaging and printer cartridges, are over-engineered, which increases
cost and reduces biodegradability. This creates an opportunity for biopolymer suppliers to work with buyers to target the optimal level of performance, while offering more ecologically
sound products that appeal to consumers.
Near term, the cost of biopolymers will limit them to niche applications. Although the performance of some biopolymers like polylactic acid (PLA) stacks up against their petroleum-based counterparts, these materials cost nearly twice as much, as long as oil is below US$100/barrel. Even if oil prices rise, increasing plant feedstock costs may sap the relative benefit of renewable materials.
Chemical makers will form technology partnerships with academics and startups. Genetic and metabolic engineering offer radically new platforms for manufacturing polymer materials, and this has already spawned cross industry partnerships. But as smaller players like GreenFuel reel from the collapse of oil prices and the financial crisis, incumbents could go bargain hunting to acquire new technologies on the cheap.