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Billions of dollars are being invested in the bioplastics sector as companies seek plastics made from natural or renewable materials, AP News wrote.

Bioplastics have been used in medical applications for some time, but the US$600bn global plastics sector was set to expand with increased use of corn, sugar, vegetable oils and other materials, according to the 9 August report.

Since large-scale production began in the 1950s, fossil fuel plastics had brought benefits to society such as making food safer to consume and vehicles safer to drive, AP News wrote.

However, plastics are seen as one of the world’s leading environmental threats with its production responsible for emitting millions of tonnes/year of greenhouse gases (GHGs), according to the report.

Of the 9bn tonnes of fossil fuel plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9% percent was recycled, studies had shown, with the remainder buried in landfills, burned or polluting land and waterways.

The chemical structure of fossil fuel plastic meant it could never fully disintegrate and instead broke down into progressively smaller particles, the report said.

Bioplastics currently represent 1% of global plastic production, according to the report, but companies and investors are now seeing opportunities in the sector.

Investment in bioplastic manufacturing reached US$500M in the first three months of this year, according to data from i3 Connect, exceeding the previous high of US$350M in the last quarter of 2021.

Zion Market Research has estimated that the bioplastics market would surge from US$10.5bn in 2021 to around US$29bn in 2028.

US company Danimer Scientific, which makes a bioplastic called PHA or polyhydroxyalkanoates using microorganisms that ferment with canola oil, had recently expanded its plant in Winchester, Kentucky, the report said.

The process used by the Georgia-based firm produced plastics pellets that manufacturers could use to mould products in the same way as petrochemical plastic, Danimer CEO Stephen Croskrey was quoted as saying.

Straws and plastic drink stirrers made from Danimer’s PHA were in use in Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts and large venues like Sofi Stadium in Inglewood, California, Croskrey said.

“We have active development projects for just about anything you can imagine,” he added.

Tests show that products made from Danimer’s PHA can biodegrade in six months in marine environments and two years in soil, according to Croskrey.

The other primary bioplastic on the current global market was PLA, or polylactic acid, which was widely produced by fermenting sugar from corn and sugar cane, AP News wrote.

Minneapolis-based NatureWorks, a joint venture between global agribusiness giant Cargill and Thailand-based PTT Global Chemical, was producing 150,000 tonnes/year of bioplastic pellets at its plant in Blair, Nebraska, the report said.

NatureWorks was building a US$600M plant in Thailand to increase its production capacity by 50%, the company’s global marketing communications manager Leah Ford was quoted as saying.

The company’s “biggest visibility market”, Ford said, was compostable food service items such as plastic cutlery, clear cups, wrappers and containers that, along with restaurant food waste, could be converted into a dark organic material that could be used to enrich soil in gardens and on farms.

Some Starbucks stores used disposable cups lined with NatureWorks’ PLA, Ford said.

PLA, unlike PHA, does not easily biodegrade in nature and needs to be mixed with food waste in industrial composters to biodegrade, according to the report. When buried in landfills, PLA eventually disintegrates, but that could take decades.

NatureWorks had formed a partnership with PHA manufacturer CJ Bio to produce a bioplastic that could more easily biodegrade, AP News wrote. The company, headquartered in South Korea, was expanding its plant in Indonesia and was planning to build a large plant in the Americas, CJ Bio vice president of research and development Raj Kirsch was quoted as saying.