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With fluctuating oil prices and greater consumer awareness of sustainability issues, there is growing demand for a new generation of bio-plastics for packaging. "The bio-plastics industry is small but it's undergoing significant growth and continual change," explains Jim Lunt, Managing Director of US consultants Jim Lunt & Associates. "One key driver for the (packaging) industry is to replace oil-based materials because oil is not a renewable resource and is being rapidly depleted." According to the Bioplastics Council (part of the Society of the Plastics industry), a bio-plastic is a plastic that is biodegradable, has bio-based content, or both. The first generation of bio-plastics were primarily focused on single use, disposable products such as plastic trays, cups, bags and mulch films, designed to be composted after use. Now the industry is moving on and Lunt talks of companies that are saying: "I'm going to make exactly the same plastics that have been in use for decades but I'm not going to use oil any more, I'm going to make them from a renewable resource."

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Rethinking the global plastics economy and how we can implement a plastic packaging system change.
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One of the most important new bio-plastics being targeted is non-petroleum derived PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate). Around 50 million tons of PET, a tough, heat-resistant polymer, are produced each year, largely to meet the demands of the packaging and bottling industries. This, says Lunt, means that: "Bio-PET is a red-hot topic in the industry today." Bio-PET is currently produced using a bio-based ethylene glycol, although 70% of the product remains oil-based. Bio-PET products include Coca-Cola's PlantBottle™, which contains 30% monoethylene glycol (MeG) made from sugar molasses, a by-product of the sugar industry, with the rest made from petroleum-based purified terephthalic acid (PTA). The ultimate goal for the industry is to replace this PTA with a bio-based version. The race is now on. PepsiCo claims to have already developed a 100% bio-sourced PET bottle in the laboratory. Companies such as Gevo, Draths, Annelotech, Virent and others have announced they have developed different methods for manufacturing PTA from renewable sources. This can then be converted to 100% bio-based PET which, until now, scientists have failed to cost-effectively produce from renewable sources.

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So what's fuelling this push for 100% plant-based PET? A key factor is the continual fluctuations in oil, which are reflected in the ever-changing costs for containers and bottles. "Companies like Pepsi and Danone, for example, want to reduce their dependency on oil-based products," continues Lunt, "and they want to have a stable supply chain where the price doesn't fluctuate significantly." Materials such as bio-PET can offer this, but at the moment a bio-PET bottle costs at least 30-40% more to produce. "The first goal is to reach price parity," says Lunt. "Major companies know the consumer is very selective - they will not pay more." Consumer fears about toxic materials leaching from oil-based plastics are also influencing the way in which the industry is moving. It is expected that oil-based plastics are more energy-intensive and produce more emissions than bio-based alternatives. This is an important consideration for companies who want to be able to prove to their consumers that they are acting in a more sustainable manner.

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Some companies are using Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) to analyse the true impact of bio-plastics using a "cradle to grave" approach (from agricultural production of bio-material to the end of the life of the packaging). "When you are replacing fossil petroleum to make plastics with bio-sourced products, you will usually reduce the carbon footprint," explains Philippe Roux from the French research institute, Cemagref. Indeed, the carbon balance for the plants themselves is neutral (the atmospheric carbon captured by plants is re-emitted when using them), while for fossil materials the balance is negative because the carbon emitted in the atmosphere does not remain sequestered in soil. But the balance should be equilibrated by taking into account additional carbon emissions from various fossil energy uses and materials during the agricultural phase as well as fertiliser emissions such as nitrous oxide. Focusing only on the carbon footprint may generate pollution transfers, therefore, lCA also takes into account several other effects, such as ecotoxicity due to pesticide use in agriculture or fertiliser run-off into the water supply, encouraging alga blooms which use available oxygen and destroy water biodiversity. Lunt points out that producing bio-PET involves an additional step of converting bio-ethanol to ethylene. Also, depending on the route to bio-based PTA, this can involve more steps than oil-based PTA. "You're not more sustainable just because you don't use oil. You are more sustainable because you don't use as much oil, you don't use as much energy, and your emissions are reduced," he says.