The new generation of biopolymers (i.e. polymerised corn, maize and potato starch)
has been greeted as an environmentally-sustainable alternative to the fossil fuelbased
polymers traditionally used in the production of plastic packaging. However,
whilst the development of these biopolymers is interesting and welcome, it is
important not to get too carried away by the environmental arguments.
- Renewable resource materials (e.g. those derived from corn, maize and potatoes)
may offer an important alternative to some oil-based plastics in the medium term.
However for a true comparison of the environmental benefits offered a number of
additional factors have to be considered. This includes the sustainability of the
renewable material’s production (e.g. the effect of any fertilisers, pesticides or
herbicides used) and any incumbent emissions or environmental damage arising from
the material’s transportation and production/processing. Essentially, the assumption
that a plant-based substitute has a zero footprint is erroneous.
- Polyethylene is made from naphtha gas. This substance would exist irrespective of
whether it is used in plastic packaging or not as it is one of a number of by-products
naturally created when crude oil is distilled for use as petroleum.
- Only 3% of the world’s supply of oil is actually used to make plastic packaging
whilst 90% is used to produce fuel and to generate electricity to heat homes.
BPI anticipates biopolymers playing an increasingly important role alongside traditional
polymers over the next few years for certain packaging applications. In the long term,
we are confident that the current limitations on their technical performance as well
as their high cost of production will certainly become less of a constraint as greater
demand drives further development and improved economies of scale.