But that alternative future is distant, measured in terms of decades, says Frederic Scheer, chairman, president and founder of Cereplast Inc., a Hawthorne, CA, company that designs and manufactures bio-based, sustainable plastics.
Which is not to say that bioplastics’ present is particularly shabby: Scheer says that U.S. demand for bioplastics could exceed $10 billion by 2020. That’s a conservative estimate, he contends, but it’s still a “drop in the bucket” compared to the traditional plastic market, which is about $2.5 trillion.
Scheer may be a visionary and a pioneer when it comes to bioplastics, but he’s also realistic about the challenge and the effort it will take to penetrate and begin to replace the traditional plastic market.
Referring to a recent 245-page study on the emerging bioplastics market commissioned by European Bioplastics and the European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence, Scheer says, “In 2007, only 0.3 percent of global plastic production was bio-based. By 2013 we expect that overall bioplastics manufacturing capacity will increase by approximately seven times current levels, which still barely taps the surface.”
But there is no escape, Scheer continues. Traditional plastics “will need to embrace bioplastic” because the price of oil is volatile and will surely increase over time, which increases the pressure to move to bioplastics. “There’s also increasing demand from consumers to use bioplastic.”
Cereplast’s technology produces bio-based resins, which are little pellets of material used as the building blocks of molded plastic products. They are used to replace nearly all or a significant portion of the petroleum-based additives used in plastics by using natural material from starches such as tapioca, corn, wheat and potatoes.
In addition to starch-based resins, Cereplast has developed a technology to transform algae into bioplastics and is planning to launch a new family of algae-based resins. Algae have the potential to become a major green feedstock for biofuels and bioplastics.
There will be a day when bioplastic replaces traditional plastic but that replacement will occur incrementally over a long period of time, say 20-30 years “because we are starting from a low point,” Scheer says. It is an emerging market with plenty of room for growth and new entrants – Cereplast is one of only three major players, the others being Natureworks and Metabolix.
In the same way that plastics replaced many wood, cotton and glass products, bioplastics will “slowly but surely” take over from plastics. The biggest bioplastics inroads will occur first in packaging and foodservice markets, Scheer says.
Bioplastic is also something less than an afterthought when it comes to government interest and investment, which is centered on low emission alternative fuels and on renewables such as solar, wind, ethanol and bio-ethanol, not alternatives to fossil fuel byproducts.
And bioplastic was not on anyone’s agenda at COP15, says Scheer. “They don’t realize that bioplastics are part of the solution.” About an 8 percent solution, because fossil fuel byproducts comprise 8 percent of fossil fuel consumption, Scheer notes.
It’s “sad but true that people are environmentally conscious when it’s convenient and affordable,” Scheer admits.
That’s yet another aspect of the insidious addiction to oil: A worthy emerging alternative to fossil fuel byproducts is captive to the price of oil and won’t really take off until the price surges and remains at a high level. Does anyone believe the oil majors will let that happen?