Author: Aditya Gupta
Enough has been said about the usage of plastic polymers that has become a major environmental crisis. Petroleum-based plastics are the third highest used product extracted from petroleum. India has become one of the biggest centers of plastic usage with over 15,000 tons of plastic waste generated every year, of which only 60% is re-processed. Countries all over the globe have begun to take steps on curbing its usage. Bangladesh has prohibited plastic bags countrywide, Ireland has imposed a tax on plastic bags, while the UK and other European countries are contemplating about taxing them as well.
Comparative Advantage of Bioplastics
There are a few alternatives to plastics that are gaining attention at a global level. Bioplastic is one such eco-friendly alternative to plastics, which could be an excellent replacement since their manufacturing results in fewer emissions of greenhouse gasses. Unlike plastics, bio-plastics are made from organic biomass sources such as corn starch and sugarcane. The following table shows a comparative study of bioplastics against conventional plastics along with profiles of a few bioplastic companies in India:
|Energy consumption in production||High||48% lower than petroleum based plastic production|
|Raw Materials||Petroleum, a non-renewable resource||Biomass obtained from starch of corn, sugarcane, potato and other renewable crops|
|Carbon Footprint||High as petroleum is involved||62% less emission of CO2 which is significantly less than traditional plastics|
|Presence of chemicals||Presence of Bisphenol A (BPA) which is a potential hormone disrupting chemical||No presence of any toxic chemical|
|Physical properties||Highly stable and thermo-plastic||Equally stable with high thermo-plasticity as traditional plastics|
|Biodegradability||Could take more than 500 years to decompose completely; needs to be recycled||Decomposes inside 180 days if decomposed in the right environment; releases methane on decomposition which can be harnessed to produce energy|
|Effect on holding contents||Fails to retain the flavor and scent of the food stored in them; potentially releases harmful substances in the food on long exposures||Retains the original flavor and scent of the food being carried in them|
|Price||Low||20%-100% higher than traditional plastics|
Popular Variants of Bioplastics
Unknowing to us, Bioplastics have been around for decades now with a notable historical usage in the Model T automotive parts that were designed by Henry Ford from corn starch and soybean oil ingredients. However, it needs to be noted that not all bioplastics are completely biodegradable. Some biological-based products can biodegrade in municipal composting facilities, or aquatic and landfill environments, others can only biodegrade in very specific environments, while some will not biodegrade at all. There are two variants that have become more popular and have gained maximum attraction:
- Polylactic acid (PLA) – transparent solid polymer that is similar to PETE polymer, but has a significantly lower maximum continuous use temperature.
- Poly hydroxyl alkanoate (PHA) is a much more eco-friendly polymer that can handle high temperatures and decomposes in soil and waterways as well Both these variants are primarily manufactured from fermented corn sugar and they can decompose up to 90% within 90 days if disposed properly. In fact, bioplastics can anaerobically degrade and release methane in the presence of moisture, which can be captured to be used for energy production.
Production of bioplastics starts with the collection of starch material plants, which produce them by absorbing CO2 during photosynthesis. This plant starch is fermented by using lactobacillus bacteria and is converted into a long-chain carbon polymer (PLA). These PLA granules are then molded into small plastic pellets which are melted to make different kinds of objects and packaging material. On the other hand, Polyhydroxy-alkanoate is a polyester produced by fermenting raw vegetable materials such as carbohydrates, vegetable oil or even glycerine. bacterial strains. It is specially extracted from bacteria such as pseudomonas.
Starch granules are the latest innovation in the packaging industry which are actually made out of Potato and Tapioca starch granules along with other biomass. The end product is white and looks like plastic, but is actually a 100% biodegradable product. These bags decompose within 180 days but if kept in normal water they dissolve within 24 hours and in 15 seconds if kept in boiling water. Therefore, people can throw away these plastic bags without worrying about any consequences as they are fully edible and compostable. The bags are sturdy enough to hold good weight but they cannot hold liquids. They are pretty economical and are available in the market at ~INR3 per bag.
Leading Bioplastic Companies in India
The market for bioplastics in India is no longer nascent with many industry players taking pioneering steps. Our country has the raw material biomass required for bioplastics in abundance. Combining this with the rising awareness among consumers, India could become the potential fulcrum for global behavior change in turning away from plastics. Quite a few manufacturing firms like Envigreen, Ecolife, Plastobags, Earthsoul India and Truegreen have come up with different forms of bioplastics, which are already supplying these environment-friendly forms of plastics in regional markets.
Truegreen is a firm based out of Ahmedabad that started a manufacturing plant with a capacity of producing 5,000 tons of bioplastics every year. The company offers a large variety of packaging solutions with bioplastics in the form of cutlery, garbage bags, food gloves, shrink films and other packaging and laminating materials made out of bioplastics, which are fully biodegradable in 180 days. Truegreen is one of the first large-scale producers of bioplastics in India and continues to grow promisingly through its sustained production.
Plastobags is an established company that primarily started in the business of conventional plastics but recently has diversified its product portfolio and expanded into bioplastics with a whole range of products from carry bags, hygiene gloves to disposable waste bags and security bags. On the other hand, Earthsoul India is the licensed manufacturer for Novamont, which is a global bioplastics producer. Although Earthsoul India has products that are more suitable for garden needs, they also have bioplastics for food packaging and waste disposal purposes.
Ecolife is a firm based out of Chennai that produces bioplastics for industrial packaging. Their products also include bioplastics for industrial packaging with different varieties like perforation films and lamination films. The bioplastics produced by Ecolife do not contain polyethylene or polypropylene and they sell both single-use and reusable plastic bags made out of bioplastics that can both be ultimately used as biowaste bag.
These bags are being produced currently by a Bengaluru-based firm Envigreen, which is the latest startup to enter the Indian bioplastics market. This company was established by a Qatar-based NRI, Ashwath Hegde in 2016, when Envigreen opened its operations in Bengaluru and its production facility is already capable of producing 1,000 tons of bioplastics every year. The carry bags manufactured by Envigreen are made out of 12-14 biological ingredients like potato, tapioca, organic oil extracted from banana, flowers and other vegetables along with natural starch.
The company’s manufacturing cost is a little high because of the expensive raw materials and thus the bags are priced 35% higher than a normal plastic bag. A medium-sized carry bag would cost INR3, whereas the same plastic bag would cost INR2. The bag if discarded decomposes within 180 days and interestingly, the company claims it takes only 15 sec to dissolve an Envigreen bag in boiling water!
Not so Positive Update about Bioplastics
We assumed the growth of bioplastics in India would bring a positive change in consumer behavior and with continued support from the government for the much-needed change toward a greener environment. However, we at Ecoideaz have realized that Bioplastics have proven not so eco-friendly since they are not biodegradable as claimed. Most Bioplastics are certified as ‘commercial compostable’ which means they need to be composted in an industrial facility. This means bioplastics are not compostable at home nor will biodegrade naturally in landfills or anywhere in open nature.