For green products to be successful, there have to be markets. For PHAs, a family of plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable, there appear to be many. Invest-NL and Wageningen University & Research are joining forces to accelerate the market introduction of PHAs. They have developed a roadmap that shows which PHAs are appropriate for specific applications, what the characteristics of logical early adapter products are, and what developments are still needed.
PHAs are made by micro-organisms from raw materials such as sugars and vegetable oils and from various waste streams such as food waste and sewage sludge. Although production volumes are still limited and production costs are high, the market demand is clearly growing. When the production volumes go up, the costs may also go down, which in turn can open up new markets. What complicates the market implementation is the fact that the production of PHAs requires a different production process than the processes used to make conventional plastics such as PE, PP, and PET. This will require substantial investments and a lot of research.
PHAs when biodegradability is essential
Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has been conducting technological research for 30 years into the production and usage possibilities of PHAs for various applications. They are currently participating in the European Urbiofin project, which aims to make PHAs from urban waste for use in packaging materials. In collaboration with Invest-NL they studied the market opportunities that will arise in the coming decades for the various types of PHA materials and the developments that are still required.
“These materials are a perfect fit for markets for which biodegradability in various natural environments is essential,” says Wouter Post, researcher at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. These applications are included in the roadmap in phase 1 of the market implementation. “There are currently various types of PHA entering the market which each have their own specific set of material properties. As a result, unique market opportunities arise for each individual PHA type. This means that the market now needs clarity on which PHAs are appropriate for specific applications, such as products like paper coatings and agricultural plastics.
Opportunities for coffee and tea packaging
There are significantly fewer direct matches among the available PHAs for applications that require more specific mechanical properties (phase 2). Still, there seem to be opportunities for specific PHA materials for plant plugs, coffee and tea packaging, and artificial reefs. According to the researchers, there are technical opportunities for biodegradable tableware (plates, cups, cutlery) in the near future. But there are strict legal regulations for the production of these materials that make the use of plastics (and therefore also PHAs) more difficult. It is therefore still unclear whether it is interesting for this industry to enter this market with PHA products.