6 June 2018

Know the difference, bioplastics explained



Despite the challenges related to plastic waste, global demand for plastics continues to grow. To mitigate the impacts of climate change, the world is simultaneously looking for ways to reduce dependency on fossil-based raw materials like crude oil.

Neste is leveraging its know-how on renewables and bringing its bioplastics solution to the market to meet the increasing need for plastics globally with a more sustainable bio-based solution.

The demand for bioplastics is rising and has been growing over the past few years. However, when we talk about bioplastics, people are not always entirely sure about what this refers to.

Bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics are, for example, not the same thing. Where bio-based refers to the origin of a plastic, biodegradable refers to the compostable characteristics of a plastic.

Where bio-based refers to the origin of a plastic, biodegradable refers to the compostable characteristics of a plastic.

The confusion is, however, understandable as combinations of bio-based and biodegradable plastics are also possible. Essentially, having clarity on the terms helps people to understand just how sustainable bioplastics are. 

Bio-based plastics is all about renewable raw materials. Renewable raw materials such as sugar, corn, or wheat are used to create polymers through a chemical or biological process. Polylactic acid (PLA) is a good example: it is a 100% bio-based plastic and today mostly produced from corn. Bio-based polyethylene (bio-PE), in turn, is produced from sugar cane.

In contrast, biodegradable plastics have been designed to decompose and degrade under the right conditions, i.e. when in contact with naturally occuring enzymes in soil, compost or even water. Biodegradable plastics represent a sustainable alternative in several applications, where biodegradability represents the desired end-of-life alternative, e.g. in agricultural films. Biodegradable plastics may or may not be bio-based.

Neste is committed to renewables and is focusing on the production of durable, recyclable and reusable bio-based plastics that can replace conventional fossil-based plastics in multiple applications.

Today, bio-based plastics are increasingly used also for a variety of products including parts for cars, packaging, consumer goods, such as toys, and electronics, to name a few. In these applications, biodegradability would not be a desired feature but recyclability is highly valued.

The Age of Bioplastics 

Neste has developed a way to produce renewable plastics identical to the conventional fossil plastics using waste and residues. These include waste and residues from agricultural processes.

Following a successful production trial in spring 2017, we are now on track to ramp-up the production of bio-based plastics to commercial volumes in 2018. Neste’s renewable hydrocarbons perform with the exact same parameters in plastics production throughout all the various converting steps. This enables the creation of bio-based items and products that consumers are used to having, with less impact on our planet.

Utilizing bio-based plastics reduces the need for fossil-based resources and can reduce greenhouse gases by more than 50%. 

Today, we can create new drop-in bioplastics using traditional methods, through steam cracking of renewable hydrocarbons that have been produced with Neste’s NEXBTL technology. However, not all bioplastics are the same, and not all raw materials can be found in sufficient volumes.

For example, some types of bio-based plastics are produced in larger volumes than others due to more readily available raw materials.

Furthermore, not all types of bio-based plastics are suitable for all plastic applications. Although different types of bio-based plastics vary from one to another, they have one thing in common: in order to be considered a sustainable replacement for conventional plastics, bioplastics need to be based on entirely sustainable supply chains, from raw material production to the production of end products. 

In order to tackle the plastic waste challenge the end of life for these products must be sustainable, whether it will include re- or upcycling, reusing, or something else. This way we can ensure the shift from petroleum-based solutions to renewable ones truly brings us closer to a more circular sustainable future overall.

Lars Borger
Lars Börger
Lars Börger, Head of Product Marketing, Emerging Business Unit