Regulations to drive demand for biodegradable plastics

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Increasing regulations and bans against plastic bags and other single-use plastic items such as drinking straws are driving growing demand for biodegradable plastics, according to market research consultancy IHS Markit.

In its latest report, published 26 July, the London-based company said Western Europe was the largest market for biodegradable plastics as the region tightened restrictions on plastic shopping bags.

According to the report, the current market value of biodegradable plastics will exceed $1.1bn (€942m) in 2018, with the figure set to reach $1.7 billion by 2023.

In terms of volume, demand for the polymers is set to reach 360,000 tonnes this year. By 2023, total consumption of biodegradable polymers is expected to increase to 550,000 tonnes, representing an average annual growth rate of 9% for the five-year period.

Biodegradable or compostable polymers are bio-based or fossil-fuel-based polymers that undergo microbial decomposition to carbon dioxide and water in industrial or municipal compost facilities.

These materials are largely starch-based compounds or polylactic acid (PLA)-based materials. 

The largest end-use segment and a major growth driver for biodegradable plastics are the food packaging, disposable tableware and bags sectors.

According to the IHS report, Western Europe, with some of the world’s strictest and increasingly stringent regulations for single-use plastics, commands 55% of the global market value in 2018 for the specialty polymers.

The region is followed by Asia and Oceania at 25%, and North America at 19% of consumption. The rest of the world contributes to the remaining 1%.

The growth in demand is due, in part, to the materials becoming more cost-competitive compared with petroleum-based plastics, according to Marifaith Hackett, director, specialty chemicals research at IHS Markit and the report’s lead author.

While the properties and processability of biodegradable polymers have improved in recent years, according to Hackett, legislation is the single most important demand driver for these plastics.

“Restrictions on the use of non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags in Italy and France have led to a significant increase in the consumption of biodegradable polymers in those countries, and we expect European countries will continue to lead in legislative restrictions,” she noted.

The demand for the materials, however, remains marginal compared to traditional plastics such as polyethylene (PE).

According to IHS Markit, global demand for PE, the world’s most-used plastic, has nearly doubled during the last 20 years.

The report expects 2018 global PE demand to exceed 100 million tonnes.

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