The U.S. Department of Agriculture has recognized SPI’s Bioplastics Division (BPD) recently for its contributions to a new report detailing the state of the American bio-economy. For bioplastics specifically, the report indicates that bioplastic bottles and packaging contributed 4,000 jobs and $410 million to the U.S. economy in 2013, and that investments in the sector yield outsized results elsewhere in the supply chain. For example, every dollar generated by the bioplastics sector generates an additional $3.64 elsewhere in the supply chain, while every job created within bioplastics results in another 3.25 jobs in adjacent sectors.
The report is full of good news for the bio-economy generally, and for bioplastics specifically, but it’s worth noting that $410 million accounts for only about a tenth of a percent of the entire $380-billion U.S. plastics industry. There’s an enormous opportunity for companies that haven’t explored the sector recently to grow their business using these materials, if all they did was give bioplastics a second look.
“Bioplastics is in need of an infusion, not so much of capital, but of market awareness,” says BPD chair Keith Edwards of BASF. “The investment has been made. There’s a lot of production capacity, and there are materials available; they’re working technically and in most cases they’re working commercially. What we still lack is a lot of market understanding of the benefits and the uses of bioplastics.”
Edwards notes that misconceptions about availability, technical performance, and commercial viability continue to haunt bioplastics, but that none of these factors are issues for the sector anymore. “In the past you could use these materials, but you could only convert like a tenth of what you had, and now you can convert everything,” he says.
“There’s definitely still a perception that they’re either not available or technically (from a material property standpoint) they can’t do what you want them to do, but the third thing is that commercially people think they’re all too expensive, which, in a lot of cases, they’re not, at least not to the same extent they used to be.”
The issue is that many companies probably already have performed their own assessment on bioplastic materials within the last ten years, which, in the scheme of long-term investments in production changes, might as well have been yesterday. “A lot of companies did their big study five years ago and think, ‘Well, I know everything I need to know about bioplastics, thank you,’” Edwards notes. “Trying to get them now to stop and do that assessment again, since they just did it, is hard because people are so busy, companies are busy, and they’re chasing new business.”
But Edwards also notes that an investment in bioplastics doesn’t have to just be for show; it can also present a company with real strategic business advantages. “What we’re trying to convince the market of is: ‘Hey there’s new business to chase that no one else is chasing, if you will employ some of these bioplastic technologies—because now you can make claims that they can’t make, and you can do things that they can’t do.’”
These awareness challenges and business opportunities aren’t unique to bioplastics, and a corollary can even be found elsewhere in the broader plastics industry. “To me it’s the same as the recycling angle,” Edwards adds. “What was true of recycled materials in the past is not necessarily true today, and the recycling industry is telling companies to come back and look, because these things are much better than they used to be.”
All of this is to suggest that innovation and growth in materials science, performance, and commercial viability are happening so quickly now that a company that waits to reassess every half-decade or so could very well be missing out on a huge opportunity, especially as these factors pertain to bioplastics. These materials can do much more than the market is giving them credit for, and once companies begin to come to terms with this fact, the USDA can expect that the next time it measures the size and impact of the bioplastics industry, it’ll account for more than a tenth of the entire U.S. plastics industry.
“If your company looked at bioplastics five years ago, and the materials didn’t have the right heat resistance or they cost three times as much or they just couldn’t be used, you need to come back and look,” Edwards says. “What was true five years ago, isn’t true today.”