IDTechEx identifies bio-based polymer tech progress amid regulatory and recycling challenges
15 Nov 2023 — Shifting away from petroleum-derived feedstocks for plastic production toward bio-based feedstocks is of the highest priority to make the polymer industry more environmentally sustainable, according to market researcher IDTechEx.
However, making the commercial production of industrial chemicals via biotechnology feasible and economically viable often fails. It is difficult to overcome biological and process challenges to make industrial production competitive within the overall chemicals market.
The need for more environmentally sustainable polymer options has never been more evident, stresses the market research institute. Four major groups are driving the progression to greater sustainability across the polymer industry: Governments, retailers or brands, NGOs or similar activist groups and the public.
But IDTechEx expects that bio-based polymer developments will see further fluctuations as companies attempt to scale their production to profitability with varied success. Depending on the end product, the biomanufacturing process, technical parameters of the process and the status of the targeted end market, novel chemicals produced through white biotechnology could very well find success in the long term, notes the research institute. Overview of inputs, biotransformation mechanisms and sustainable outputs manufactured by white biotechnology (Image credit: IDTechEx).
One of the most interesting bio-based feedstocks is CO2, finds IDTechEx. The rise of carbon capture and utilization technologies would enable CO2 captured from industrial point sources or ambient air to be used as a carbon source for chemical and polymer production.
Other bio-based feedstocks, like corn sugar, vegetable oil or lignocellulosic biomass used in bioplastic production, are also gaining traction.
One emerging area that looks to convert such bio-based feedstocks into commodity chemicals and materials is white biotechnology, also called industrial biomanufacturing. White biotechnology, as defined and described by IDTechEx, is the industrial production and processing of chemicals, materials and energy using living cell factories, like bacteria, yeast and fungi. The value proposition of white biotechnology extends beyond its use of bio-based feedstock, potentially creating biodegradable products.
The value proposition of white biotechnology extends beyond its use of bio-based feedstock, as biomanufacturing processes can use less energy, generate less waste and potentially create biodegradable products, explains IDTechEx.
The researcher highlights that there has been a recent influx of technology enablers, namely the tools and techniques offered by synthetic biology, making the industrial production of commodity chemicals and precursors to plastics more achievable than before.
Synthetic biology offers the potential to bypass the natural limitations of cell factories like E.coli to make them technically more efficient and economically more competitive. Chemical companies like BASF and Covestro have highlighted their interest in using white biotechnology to grow their ecological polymers portfolio.
Bio-based polymers in end-markets
The application of sustainable polymers in end markets and the challenges faced by bio-based competitors in markets like packaging are important to understand, as they give insight into the growth potential for different sustainable polymers, asserts IDTechEx.
The packaging sector faces increasing regulations on single-use plastics, prompting the growing usage of recycled and bio-based plastics to increase the environmental sustainability of packaging by brands.
While this area is seeing significant progress in specific application areas like food service, personal care, home and pet care, there are still technical barriers to overcome to achieve 100% bio-based packaging in most applications. For example, many bio-based PET bottles currently on the market are not 100% bio-based, as only one of their two core constituents is manufactured at scale from bio-based sources.
To address the need for bio-based terephthalic acid (TPA), several companies, like Origin Materials, are developing different approaches to produce bio-based precursors to TPA. More recently, Mitsubishi Corporation, Suntory Holdings, Eneos and Neste partnered to produce bio-based paraxylene, which will then be converted to TPA and used to manufacture PET bottles starting in 2024.
IDTechEx expects to see more partnerships for such material and technology development in this space as companies across the polymer value chain collaborate to ensure their ability to develop sustainable polymers that can be applied in key markets like packaging.
The chemical recycling debateRecycling will remain a key part of creating a circular plastics economy, says IDTechEx.
Recycling will remain a key part of making a circular plastics economy, as it ensures that any carbon captured using bio-based feedstocks stays sequestered, highlights IDTechEx.
Mechanical recycling in the short and medium term is expected to continue being the main recycling process. Still, there has been significant industrial activity regarding chemical recycling and the dissolution of plastics.
Advanced recycling addresses many of the shortcomings of mechanical recycling, like plastic degradation through recycling cycles, to produce recycled plastic that approaches the quality of virgin plastic. Chemical companies like Eastman Chemical have entered the market with their chemical recycling plants and processes.
But chemical recycling remains controversial, questioning the technology’s environmental benefits as NGOs have accused the petrochemical giants pursuing chemical recycling of “greenwashing” the real environmental impact of these technologies.
IDTechEx advocates for a case-by-case assessment of the environmental sustainability and the economic viability of new bio-based polymer developments. It calls the market potential for sustainable polymers “massive,” and as single-use plastic bans and carbon zero pledges grow in tandem with plastic consumption, the pressure on materials producers is increasing.
The researcher expects the plastic circular economy to continue gaining traction as sustainability becomes a corporate and consumer priority. However, it still faces challenges to overcome to overtake the petrochemical market.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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