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Sustainable Plastics: Eco-Friendly Options on the Rise

Nearly 9 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Since plastic was not intended to be biodegradable or recycled upon its creation, most of that waste still remains in landfills and other unintended dumping sites. Even with modern-day efforts, less than one-third of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) materials in the United States are recycled. While many companies around the world are working to design their products with fully recycled materials that use less plastic, a circular plastics approach is not actually the most sustainable. Each reuse comes with reprocessing, where new materials are added to restore recycled materials to like-new quality. After two or three passes through the recycling process, these materials must be tossed completely, as their quality is too degraded to recycle.

Industry experts have begun to turn their efforts to more sustainable plastics manufacturing, including the use of fully renewable and biodegradable solutions.

In recent history, China has dominated the sustainable plastics sector. Japan appears to be ramping up innovation in this space, with hundreds of applications but few published patents. Also of note is the appearance of single European nations along with the EPO, as compared to normal market filing percentages. This may speak to Europe’s focus on climate change.

Types of Eco-Friendly Plastics

Polylactic Acid-Based Plastic (PLA)

Considered to be the most promising sustainable biopolymer currently available, as it is uniquely 100% renewable, biosourced, and biodegradable. PLA is derived from lactic acid produced by sugar cane or corn by fermenting dextrose. This results in a thermoplastic polyester end product with a high melting point, mechanical strength, and transparency, all of which make it very comparable to mainstream polymers. However, PLA does have some disadvantages on its own. It’s quite brittle and lacks adequate impact strength, both of which limit its use. Studies have suggested that PLA weaknesses can be offset when the material is combined with natural polymers like starch and cellulose, which have also been used in the sustainable plastics industry.

Thermo-Plastically Modified Starch Blends (TPS)

Starch is one of the most commonly available green materials on the planet and has seen a growing role among sustainable plastic sources. Plants like corn, sugar cane, potatoes, and other tubular vegetation synthesize and store starch to reinforce their structure and act as an energy reserve. On its own, starch disintegrates in water and cannot be melt-processed like traditional plastics. TPS is developed with native starch, water, and a plasticizer like glycerol, sorbitol, or glucose in order to take on its thermoplastic characteristics. Compostable plastic like PLA can also be used to rectify these disadvantages and strengthen PLA’s own lacking areas. Therefore, TPS products create a more sustainable plastic that enhances water resistance, reduces materials costs, and improves processing and mechanical properties.

Cellulose-Based Plastics

Cellulose is a fully organic compound found in the stem walls of every plant in every plant cell, making it the most naturally occurring and one of the most sustainable polymers on the planet. Materials like wood pulp and cotton liners are heated down, which extracts cellulose fibers. While cellulose is insoluble, its nanofibers are extremely sensitive to moisture. They can absorb moisture, lose gas barrier properties and begin to mold or rot. This is another polymer that can benefit from PLA introduction. Similarly to TPS, cellulose plastic or acetate water resistance can be fortified with PLA, creating an overall more robust and reliable product.

The Future of Sustainable Plastics

PLA, TPS, and cellulose-based plastics are safe for food packaging, disposable eating utensils, loose packing materials, protective packaging, and compostable bags. From a cost perspective, these sustainable plastic alternatives are not considered more economical than conventional petroleum plastics. That being said, the outlook on eco-friendly plastics is highly positive. Just last year, the global market for these and other biodegradable options was around $4.1 billion. Between the rising cost of petroleum and the demand for green materials, it’s no wonder the market is projected to compound nearly 10% annually through 2030.

There are no dominant companies in the industry; top filers have no more than 20 active or pending patents. It appears organizations are filing to integrate sustainability into their existing product lines. This could also mean that sustainable plastics technology will be licensed across companies in the same or similar industries. InnovationQ+™ reveals these insights using its powerful AI engine, allowing innovators to quickly complete a comprehensive, up-to-date survey the landscape for areas of opportunity and inform IP strategy.