Development of Biobased Plastics Independent of the Future of Biofuels



As the world population has recently grown to more than 7 billion people and the population will continue to grow past 8 billion people by 2026,i great concern exists about how all individuals will be fed, clothed and provided energy. A perception exists that using agricultural food products as feedstocks for industrial products such as fuels or materials contributes to food insecurity. This perception gained significant foothold in 2008, when food prices rose sharply sparking protests that in some cases escalated to riots.

Because of this concern, a great deal of research and analysis has been conducted regarding connections between biobased industrial products -- fuels and materials -- and food. This research and the concurrent increase in food supply and thus decrease in food prices led to a seeming loss of interest in this discussion.

However with the recent U.S. drought, the food versus fuel versus material debate has been revived. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has noted that about 80% of agricultural land experienced drought in 2012 and that over 2000 counties were declared natural disaster areas as of September 2012.v This factor, in addition to the Renewable Fuel Standards, which mandates that U.S. fuel companies ensure that 9% of their gasoline pools are made up of ethanol, has increased discussion around this multifaceted topic.

A widely held perception is that the biobased plastics industry is inextricably linked to and dependent on the emergence of a robust biorefining industry focused mainly on providing fuel. This perception is quite understandable, given that this is how the petrochemical industry developed. Since there was demand for fuels, a petroleum refining infrastructure was built to meet that demand. Petrochemicals were a byproduct of petroleum refining, and the petrochemicals industry, indeed the entire plastics industry, grew exponentially.vii If we assumed that biobased plastics are similarly dependent on biofuels, then biobased plastics‟ impact on food, land use and the like are the same as biofuels, albeit as a relatively incremental additional impact.

In this paper, the SPI Bioplastics Council challenges the widely held perception that biobased plastics cannot develop independently of biofuels. To be sure, some bioplastic feedstocks are byproducts of fuel production, such as glycerol. Bioplastics based on those platform chemicals clearly would benefit from a robust biofuels industry. But other bioplastics can be derived via other routes which may or may not be strongly linked to biofuel production. While it is entirely possible that history will repeat itself, there are some significant differences compared with the early twentieth century. There also are elements inherent to some bioindustrial processes, especially around scale, which open up options that are not viable in an oil-based economy. These differences may enable the biobased plastics industry to develop independently of what happens in the biofuels industry.

Of course, even an independent biobased plastics industry would by necessity have some impact on food, land use and the like. These impacts would not necessarily mirror those of the biofuels industry, either qualitatively or quantitatively. We will examine potential impacts of an independent biobased plastics industry, including technological advances by which those impacts may be more readily mitigated than in the biofuels industry.

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