Mohammed Ashfaq, managing director of the Bengaluru-based Plastobag Industries, recalls the incident that spurred him to make biodegradable plastics. One day in 2011, when he entered his home, his 12-year-old daughter, who had just learnt about the environmental ills of plastic, berated her father, “Papa, you are polluting the entire city.” That made Mr. Ashfaq want to do something that would make his daughter proud, he said. The research he began that year culminated in the commercial production of eco-friendly plastics at his factory in early 2018. Today, 35%, or more than a third, of his products are biodegradable, he said.
Plastobag is one of the sixteen companies in India that have permission from the Central Pollution Control Board to make bioplastics. (‘Bioplastics’ is used here to mean biodegradable, although it can have other meanings). Between them, these manufacturers make carry bags, cutlery, films, food containers, and bin liners. Unlike conventional plastics, these items can be broken down by microbes in industrial composting facilities within six months. This makes them a promising, if partial, solution to India’s plastic problem.
Yet, these firms face big challenges in finding customers. Because most bioplastics produced globally are made from the byproducts of food crops, they are expensive. Compared to conventional plastics, which are derived from fossil fuels, a bioplastic carry bag could cost almost thrice as much. With only a few municipal corporations implementing the 2016 countrywide ban on conventional plastic carry bags of less than 50 micron thickness, there has been no economic reason for most people to switch.
The second roadblock in the way of bioplastics fulfilling their eco-friendly purpose is that most of them require industrial composting facilities to be disposed of. But most cities lack an adequate number of such facilities; this means the bioplastics end up on the streets and harm the environment just like normal plastics do.
Bioplastics can be made out of dozens of different feedstocks. Take one of the commonest bioplastics in use today — polylactic acid (PLA). Companies like Germany’s BASF and the U.S.-based Natureworks synthesise PLA from starch extracted from food crops like corn and cassava. This PLA is then imported by Indian companies, who blend it with other ingredients to make carry bags, bin liners or cutlery.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates, or PHA, is another feedstock that is synthesised by having bacteria feed on vegetable oils or sugars from food crops.
The reliance on food crops presents a key challenge for bioplastics, because these crops are simply not a cost-competitive alternative to fossil fuels today. According to a 2017 report from the Netherlands’ Wageningen University & Research, while PLA cost €2 per kg in 2016, conventional low-density polyethylene (LDPE) cost between €1,250 — 1,450 per tonne (1,000 kg) that year. Apart from the stark differences in costs, plant-based plastics also give rise to the food-versus-fuel debate that has plagued biofuels. “You can’t divert food crops towards bioplastics, because that may lead to a food crisis,” said P.S.G. Krishnan, the head of CIPET Institute of Plastics Technology in Bhubaneshwar.
If food crops are already a costly way to make plastics, throw in the fact that almost all raw material for bioplastics, like PLA pellets, is imported by Indian manufacturers today.
“It comes from Europe,” said Mr. Ashfaq. “China is also a huge seller of compostable plastics.” This means that import duties and transport costs get tacked on to the already high feedstock prices.
In the coming years, however, the price difference between bioplastics and conventional plastics is expected to shrink. One driver would be Indian firms manufacturing raw material locally. For example, the Ahmedabad-based Greendiamz Biotech, which has been making bioplastics since 2009, said it would start making its raw material from next year. “Hopefully, we will be able to start production by the end of 2019,” said Deepak Sanghvi, founder of Greendiamz.
Another company, the Bengaluru-based Envigreen, has gone one step further and patented its own technology for a starch-based raw material. This material, made from tapioca starch and vegetable oil, is more than just compostable, said Ashwath Hegde, the company’s founder. This means that it doesn’t require industrial composting conditions, and breaks down even in the normal environment. In fact, versions of the product are soluble in hot and cold water, respectively.
Mr. Hegde plans to supply this raw material to Indian plastic makers, many of whom lost business after the 2016 ban on thin carry bags. “Many firms shut down due to the plastic ban. We are focusing on providing technology and raw material to them to produce products,” he said. The advantage of manufacturing raw material indigenously shows up in his prices, which he said are among the lowest in India today. As he partners with more companies in the coming year, and scales up production, Envigreen’s raw material would cost even lesser, he said.
Internationally, too, a wave of innovation is expected to drive down raw material costs. The most important innovation is the use of non-food crops. For example, the U.S.-based Renmatix, has developed an inexpensive method to use biomass willow plants, switchgrass, and even sawdust as raw material.
Another American company Full Cycle Bioplastics said it has developed a technology to synthesise PLA from organic mixed-waste. The most promising feedstock in development today is algae, found abundantly in seawater. Again, numerous groups are working on this. Just this month, a team from Israel’s Tel Aviv University published a paper in Bioresource Technology describing a method to make PHA from microbes that eat seaweed. To be sure, few of these “second-generation” and “third-generation” feedstocks, as they are called, are ready for commercial-scale use today. But they would be in a few years, said Goutham Y., who handles market strategy at Ecolife LLC, a Chennai-based bioplastics company that supplies packaging material to garment exporters.
Such innovations will drive expansion of the global bioplastics industry from 4.2 million tonnes to 6.1 million tons in 2021, according to estimates by Germany’s Nova Institute.
Industry needs support
Much of this innovation is being driven by policy, such as the European Union’s 2015 action plan towards a circular economy. Given the high cost and technological barriers the bioplastics industry is saddled with, it’s unlikely to take off on its own. This means that if India doesn’t follow with its own policies, the country is unlikely to see similar growth, said bioplastics manufacturers. On the wish list are subsidies for electricity consumption, lower rates of Goods and Services Tax and lower import duties. “Without this, production won’t go up, costs won’t come down, and big players won’t enter India. There won’t be any future for bioplastics,” said Mr. Sanghvi.
Municipal authorities have a big role to play too. They must set up composting infrastructure and impose bans more stringently, instead of rolling them back under public pressure. This will push up demand, a critical driver for efficiency in the industry, said Mr. Goutham. “Bioplastic manufacturing is a volume game,” he added.
Small nudges could lead to big cost savings, because some bioplastic applications inherently need less material. Take mulch films for example — large sheets of conventional plastics spread on farms to conserve water and suppress weeds. Conventional plastic films are typically thick to allow farmers to peel them off after use. But bioplastic films can be thin if they can break down in place, suggests the Wageningen University report. Further, not having to peel off the film can save on labour costs. In India too, bioplastic carry bags have been exempted from the 50 micron rule. They are allowed to be thinner because this will let them break down faster. Such factors can keep the prices of bioplastics down, at least in some cases.
For these reasons, there is a case for greater bioplastic use worldwide and in India. Today, only 2% of global plastic production is bio-based, according to the American Lux Research. But experts caution that bioplastics, while useful, are no panacea for pollution. This is because the key culprit today is the lack of awareness among people, who don’t segregate their waste. A large amount of the discarded plastic today wouldn’t be an environmental hazard in the first place, if it were properly recycled. With most bioplastics, degradation is fast in industrial composting facilities, but takes years in the natural environment.
“You may think it’s a bioplastic and continue to litter. But it will still remain in the environment, if not for centuries, then for years. And it will still choke the drain,” said CIPET’s Dr. Krishnan.