Bioplastics and Circular Economy: Closing the Loop

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The Current Bioplastic Industry

Global bioplastic production is projected to reach 6.3 million tonnes in 2027. A significant rise from a production capacity of 2.23 million tonnes as of 2022. Bioplastics currently only makeup around 1% of global plastics production. 

Apart from the stagnation in 2020 due to covid 19 pandemic, global bioplastic production has been on the rise in recent years. These figures include both biodegradable bioplastics and bio-based nonbiodegradable bioplastics. 

48% of bioplastics get used or are designed for packaging applications. This amounts to around 1 million tonnes annually. Data shows that their application is gradually being diversified. As bioplastic technology advances, they find applications in other areas such as biomedicine, agriculture, automobiles, and textiles.

Asia currently produces 40% of global bioplastics while Europe produces around 25%. Asia is expected to lead production by 2027 when it is projected to be producing 60% of global bioplastic. 

Bioplastics are currently limited by challenges such as the high cost of production, feedstock availability, and relatively lower performance of most bioplastics compared to fossil-based synthetic counterparts. 


Current Gaps in Achieving a Closed Loop Circular Economy

UNECE describes a circular economy as “A cooperative economy that creates green and decent jobs and keeps resource use within planetary boundaries”. It is aimed to minimize pollution and waste generation, extend the lifecycle of products, and enable sharing of physical natural assets across a wide range.

Gaps have been identified in different aspects relating to achieving a closed-loop circular economy. The key areas include:


Waste management

Efficiently managing waste from both industry and municipal activity is a crucial aspect of a circular economy. This includes the development of technologies and innovations that reduce, reuse, and recycle waste. Other aspects of waste management such as data collection on waste and policies on waste management also need to be advanced to close the loop on circular economy. Currently, around 80% of global waste ends up in landfills. These include recyclable, compostable, and reusable materials.

A traceable value chain

The ability to trace a product across the value chain increases the chances of that product fitting within the circular economy model. These allow for recycling, reusing, or reducing the waste generated. Technologies such as the VEnvirotech VEbox that allow the on-site processing of waste facilitate the development of a traceable value chain. More technologies to facilitate product tracing across the value chain should be developed across diverse industries and product types.

Frameworks for standards and regulations

Developing standards and regulations make a closed-loop circular economy more achievable. Making products to set standards allow for more collective management of the value chain where products can be effectively labeled. It also allows for effectively returning the product into the closed loop at the end of its lifespan. For example, producing bioplastics that degrade within a set range of timeframe that allows them to be fit for composting and correctly labeling them as such.  

Efficient trade and logistics chains

Achieving a circular economy can be severely hindered where there are complex trade systems and logistics challenges. Even where products are sustainably made using green technology, these products need to be traded for value and move from producer to consumer to waste management effectively. 

To this effect, VEnvirotech serves as a link between bioplastic producers and organic waste generators. This creates a network for trading and simplifies the logistics of sourcing raw materials for bioplastic production. 

Enhancing sustainability and innovation through public procurement

Government and government-owned enterprises can significantly contribute to a circular economy by procuring goods and services that drive innovation that contributes to a circular economy. In this way, government acts as a participator and drives demand for products and services that fit within a closed-loop circular economy.

How Bioplastics Contribute to Circular Economy

Bioplastics contribute to the circular economy in different ways. These can be through the reduction of nonbiodegradable waste plastic getting into the environment, conservation of non-renewable resources, use of renewable raw materials, and avoiding environmentally harmful and hazardous processes, amongst others. The ideal closed loop for bioplastics in a circular economy is summarized in Figure 1 in an illustration from Europen Bioplastics.

The following subsections discuss some specific ways bioplastics contribute to a closed-loop circular economy.



Waste Management and Environmental Remediation 

Recent development in bioplastic production is in the utilization of waste as raw material in bioplastic production. This innovation gives bioplastics a key advantage over fossil-derived bioplastics. It is also a major contributor to a closed-loop circular economy. Beyond reducing plastic waste, this range of bioplastics from VEnvirotech also helps eliminate other wastes.

There is potential for synchronizing bioplastic production with environmental bioremediation. Where for example bacteria that produce the polyester PHA have been identified amongst bacteria that degrades textiles dye and those that degrade crude oil and hydrocarbons.


Closing the Loop on the Food Chain

Compostable biodegradable bioplastics eventually become nutrients for soil when composted at the end of their usage life. This can significantly contribute to dependency on imported fertilizers. As bioplastics spread across the global supply chain, more bioplastics become available as compostable waste which can be utilized in soil improvement. This is particularly important in regions where fertilizer is expensive or supply chains have been disrupted due to factors such as wars and conflicts or pandemics. 

Since some bioplastics are made from raw materials which ultimately originate from the soil using nutrients that could have been used in food production, when they decompose they return back into the ground. This closed the loop in the food chain. 


Reducing carbon footprint  

The carbon dioxide emission resulting from the processing of bioplastics is removed when the bioplastic gets biodegraded and turns into the soil used for growing plants. These plants will eventually remove the CO2 from the environment.

When coupled with carefully managed eco-friendly downstream processes that minimize CO2 emission, bioplastics production can achieve net zero and even negative CO2 emissions. For example, VEnvirotech’s onsite processing technology minimizes CO2 emissions by reducing the transportation requirement of the organic waste revaluation process.


Diversified Resource Use

One of the problems of the linear economic model is that it entails utilizing a resource, which is mostly nonrenewable to the point where it gets depleted. Then we look for another resource to replace the depleted resource. This often leads to periods of scarcity alongside other social, economic, and environmental effects. 

Closing the loop will therefore require a more diversified use of resources such that no one particular resource gets used to the point of exhaustion. This reduces the stress and shocks to society, the economy, and the environment. 

Therefore a more circular approach would be to not only rely on only petroleum for meeting the diverse applications of plastics. Rather explore the wider option of raw materials bioplastics can be produced from. To this end, VEnvirotech has various range of bioplastic formulations which blend different types of bioplastic, fibers, and minerals to achieve diverse properties to meet wider applications.  

Advanced biotechnology allows for bioplastics from diverse sources with diverse properties. For example, in the production of PHA, there are several strains of bacteria that produce PHA and over 150 different PHA structures have been identified. They either produce short-chain PHAs with 3 to 5 carbons or medium-chain PHAs with 6 to 14 carbon atoms along the PHA polymer chain. 

An example of a short-chain PHA is PHB. It is a typically stiff and brittle crystalline PHA so it is often modified with 3-hydroxy valerate units within its chain to achieve a co-polymer with improved flexibility, toughness, and thermal properties. An example of medium-length PHA is poly (3-hydroxyoctanote and poly (3- hydroxy hexanoate. These have properties of thermoplastic elastomers which makes them suited for biomedical applications. Such that properties of the same class of material can be engineered to meet diverse needs.


Agricultural Land Use for Bioplastics Production

0.8 million hectares of land was reportedly used in 2022 to cultivate feedstock for bioplastic production. This is 0.01% of the global agricultural area. The question is will this need to increase to produce more bioplastics? Not necessarily. With bioplastics such as PHA, organic waste can be used. VEnvirotech for example specializes in the conversion of organic waste from different sectors into raw materials for bioplastics production.

Therefore advancement in bioplastics technology means bioplastics can be produced with less impact on available land for agriculture.  

Fitting Your Business into The Circular Economy

The adverse environmental and socio-economic impact of the linear economic model has become more evident in recent years. Governments, investors, and consumers increasingly demand that businesses adopt more circular models in their products and operations. 

Sustainability increasingly plays an important role in decision-making by all stakeholders in terms of investment, policies, and consumption. 

Contact VEnvirotech today to explore the range of products and services we can offer to help your business improve sustainability and better fit into the circular economy model.