270 Million Tons of Plastics in 2007
Bioplastics are certainly not a panacea - they have their problems - but if we are to someday move to a world free of fossil fuels (by choice or by necessity), we'll need something to make plastics. Researchers from Utrecht University conducted a study that was commissioned by the associations European Bioplastics and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE), and their findings were pretty interesting.
"In their study, Martin K. Patel, Li Shen and Juliane Haufe demonstrate that up to 90 percent of the current global consumption of polymers can technically be converted from oil and gas to renewable raw materials." But while that's a pretty huge number, this is a theoretical ceiling. In the short to mid-term, the numbers are much lower: "Based on recent company announcements the production capacity of bio-based plastics is projected to increase from 360,000 tons in 2007 to about 2.3 million tons by 2013."
That's a good growth rate, but it won't bring us anywhere near 90% of total plastics anytime soon, and even if it did, there would probably be huge problems getting all that biomass. This is just another reminder that since plastics are useful things, we should probably stop burning all that oil and natural gas and instead keep it around to make more useful and long-lived things.
In 2007, the most important products in terms of production volumes were starch plastics (0.15 Mt) and PLA (0.15 Mt). Based on the company announcements, the authors project that the most important representatives by 2020 will be starch plastics (1.3 Mt), PLA (0.8 Mt), bio-based PE (0.6 Mt) and PHA (0.4 Mt).
A variety of growth scenarios have been looked at by the authors of the study. The most optimistic one brings production of bio-plastics to 4.40 Mt by 2020.
How about we start putting some serious effort in designing and using plastics (bio or not) that can be recycled more easily and that don't degrade quite as much during the process (down-cycling)? Of course, the problem remains that recycling plastics isn't that attractive as long as oil prices are relatively low and it costs a lot to recycle it. Improvements in recycling techniques might be needed before things improve much.