Everything You Need to Know About Biodegradable Plastics and PLA
Plastic, in its many forms, is one of the most useful materials that’s ever been created. Its applications are endless, encompassing everything from food packaging and medical equipment to cars, clothing, furniture and countless other products and technologies that we rely on every day.
Unfortunately, the same quality that makes plastic so versatile – its durability – has also made it a significant source of global pollution. This is due in no small part to the fact that so many items, including straws, cups and shopping bags, are made from plastic when they don’t actually require the longevity that the material provides.
Enter biodegradable plastics, or plastics that are designed to break down naturally in the environment in just a matter of months. Hanwha is committed to making eco-friendly biodegradable plastics a staple of daily life, and recently signed an agreement with Korean food and confectionary company SPC Group to co-develop a biodegradable plastic material for use in SPC’s products.
What exactly will Hanwha and SPC’s new material be made from and how will its introduction change the way we think about biodegradable plastics? Read on to find out.
Before we discuss the ins and outs of biodegradable plastics, we should start by examining just how much of a challenge conventional plastics pose for the environment.
The amount of plastic waste generated each year is quite simply staggering. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), approximately half of all plastic produced is designed to be used once and then thrown away. This is especially alarming when you consider that five trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year and one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute.
So many of the products that we utilize every day, including everything from food and drink containers to cutlery and toiletries, can take decades and even centuries to decompose on their own. Unless we do something to make products like these more sustainable, plastic pollution will only get worse.
Lifespan of Common Plastic Products
single-use grocery bags : 20 years, coffee cups : 30 years, straws : 200 years, water bottles : 450years, toothbrushes, diapers : 500 years. Source : WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature)
A NATURAL SOLUTION
While there may not be a magic bullet to solve plastic pollution, we can make the situation more manageable by taking steps to replace conventional plastic with biodegradable alternatives.
Thanks in part to the efforts of companies like Hanwha, plant-based biodegradable plastics have come a long way in recent years. Designed to decompose safely without harming the environment, most biodegradable plastics today are made of polylactic acid (PLA), a polyester derived from starchy plants like corn, cassava and sugarcane.
Under certain conditions, products made from biodegradable plastics can be broken down easily into water, biomass and carbon dioxide. The decomposition process can take less than six months and is carried out by naturally occurring microorganisms like bacteria, algae and fungi.
What makes PLA so exciting from a sustainability standpoint is the fact that it’s renewable, compostable and relatively inexpensive. It’s also incredibly versatile. In addition to being widely used for medical purposes, PLA’s ability to decompose quickly makes it especially suitable for use in products with short lifespans like water bottles and food containers.
On top of that, PLA is a thermoplastic, which means that it has a lower melting point than many fossil-based alternatives. This makes it especially easy to work with and means that it can be reheated and reused without compromising quality.
DURABILITY IS KEY
While PLA’s low melting point makes it easy to reform for use in new products, it also makes it less durable than traditional plastic. Therein lies a key barrier to PLA’s widespread adoption. Because PLA is less durable, it has thus far been unsuitable for applications involving high temperatures. This has made PLA impractical for use in things like coffee cups and other containers for holding hot liquids. Indeed, even a hot summer day could cause a PLA container to soften or deform.
Ultimately, making biodegradable plastic packaging a fixture of daily life will require the development of more durable PLA. With this goal in mind, Hanwha Compound,
a wholly owned subsidiary of Hanwha Solutions, has been drawing from its experience producing world-class materials to explore ways to strengthen PLA so it could be utilized in the packaging of more products. In a nutshell, the company succeeded in its mission by applying its proprietary mixing technology to enhance PLA’s durability while maintaining its biodegradable characteristics.
This recipe forms the backbone of the new PLA-based packaging material that Hanwha Compound and SPC Group have committed to developing. The material will be used to package products across SPC’s wide portfolio of brands, which includes domestic branches of popular franchises like Shake Shack, Baskin Robbins and Dunkin’, among others.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Hanwha and SPC Group’s agreement has the potential to be a watershed moment for biodegradable plastics’ widespread adoption. With eco-friendly options like this becoming more and more viable, it’s no wonder why experts are bullish about the growth of the biodegradable plastics market.
A recent report from Precedence Research predicts that the global biodegradable plastics market will be worth roughly $7.06 billion by 2027, up from $3.39 billion in 2019, expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.6 percent. The PLA market in particular was valued at $525.47 million in 2020 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 18.1 percent from 2021 to 2028, fueled by significant demand for the type of eco-friendly food and beverage packaging that Hanwha and SPC are developing.
In addition, across the globe, momentum has been building for governments and industries to take steps to tackle plastic pollution. Europe in particular has been especially proactive in addressing this issue. Not only is the continent the world’s largest biodegradable plastics market, but it recently introduced a ban on single-use plastics in an effort to reduce the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.
Over the next few years, Asia Pacific is expected to be one of the fastest-growing markets for biodegradable plastics, expanding at a CAGR of 27.6 percent between 2018 and 2023. Major drivers of demand include a consumer base that is becoming increasingly concerned about the environment and government policies that are encouraging the development of more environmentally friendly products.
Global Biodegradable Plastics Market Value. 2019: $3.39 billion, 2027 : $7.06 billion. CAGR : 9.6%. source : Zion Market Research
Going forward, advancing biodegradable plastics like PLAs will be crucial for getting plastic pollution under control and making the world a greener place for future generations.
By enhancing biodegradable plastics with the same durability that makes traditional plastic so versatile, Hanwha is laying the foundation for more eco-friendly products to find their way to a shelf near you.