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Biodegradation, Biocomposites, and the Future of Bioplastics in Southeast Asia

Anthony Schiavo, Senior Analyst
April 1, 2019

Key Takeaways from the 13th Bioplastics Market Summit in Bangkok

Lux recently had the opportunity to give the opening speech at this year's Bioplastics Market Summit in Bangkok, Thailand. The discussions were wide-ranging, and covered new technology developments, end-of-life challenges, policy, and public perception of bioplastics. It featured leading bioplastics players like GenomaticaTotal CorbionSynvina, and Novamont, as well as major brands and leading chemical corporations (Marks & Spencer, IKEA, PTT Global Chemical, and Mitsubishi Chemicals).

Topics presented at the conference reflected key trends and requirements in Southeast Asia, which many companies and brands operating in the region should be aware of:

  • Plastic waste is the top priority in Asia. It was fitting that India banned imports of plastic waste only days before the conference started, as plastic waste dominated the proceedings. This ban is itself a ripple effect from China's ban on waste plastic imports, a hugely impactful regulatory change that has shifted the flow of global plastic waste. The lack of recycling infrastructure in Southeast Asia (where much of the world's plastic waste now ends up) has compounded this issue and created an urgent need for solutions.
  • Biodegradability is a solution that uniquely fits Southeast Asia's lack of infrastructure. Many of the bioplastics technology developers featured at this conference were European companies, and the success stories they shared highlighted the need for integration with existing composting or recycling infrastructure. Novamont, for example, highlighted its integration of compostable bioplastic bags with the waste system in Milan. The bags allow the collection and composting of food waste without the need to separate the bags from the food waste. Novamont rightly pointed out that many competitive biodegradable or even compostable plastics would not work in this application, as they would not be compatible with the processes used by Milan's industrial composters. While this is an excellent case study for the EU, where strong end-of-life infrastructure exists, no comparable infrastructure exists in Southeast Asia. This creates opportunities for many materials that would face huge regulatory barriers in markets with existing infrastructure.

  • Biodegradable composites made a splash with the crowd: Much of the conference focused on single-use plastics, but there were two startups with technological developments for durable goods. The first one, Biofibre, is a German startup focused on compounding natural fibers with biodegradable or recyclable plastics. These plastics offer improved properties over pure bioplastics resins – but it is the business strategy focusing on application and product development that helps this company stand out. The second startup, Arctic Biomaterials, offers a more unique technology: biodegradable glass fiber composites. This company originally developed biodegradable glass fiber for biosorbable implants but is now working on bringing chopped-glass fiber PLA composites to applications like automotive and electronics. Glass fiber reinforcement offers much better mechanical properties than existing bioplastics. While both companies are early-stage, these technologies highlight that biomaterials with high performance and compelling end-of-life characteristics are possible.

With so much of the focus on end-of-life issues, the question of consumer acceptance of bioplastics was hardly discussed, despite dominating the conversation last year.

This shift reflects a few changes in the market. Firstly, plastic waste is now primarily a regulatory and political challenge, now outweighing even brands' attempts to differentiate as a key driver for sustainability, thus shifting the discussion away from consumer preference. Secondly, the growing awareness of plastic waste issues has helped educate the public, and attendees were largely confident in the consumer desire for sustainable products. 

As companies go forward building a bioplastics and end-of-life strategy, it's critical to take regional differences into account. Asia isn't just the largest and fastest-growing market for plastics – it's also something of a blank slate where companies can deploy a more diverse set of technologies to tackle the issue of plastics waste.