Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

London — Companies that make packaging from plants instead of fossil fuels are starting to challenge the oil industry’s ambition to increase the supply of raw materials for plastics.

Use of bioplastics made from sugar cane, wood and corn will grow at least 50% in the next five years, according to European Bioplastics in Berlin, an association whose members include Cargill and Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, German chemical giant BASF and the Finnish paper maker Stora Enso have stepped in to the business to meet demand from the likes of Coca-Cola to Lego.

"Biochemicals and bioplastics could erode a portion of oil demand, much like recycling could erode overall virgin plastics demand," said Pieterjan Van Uytvanck, a senior consultant at Wood Mackenzie, a research group focused on the oil industry. "It will become a larger portion of the supply."

Movie-goers famously learned in the 1967 film The Graduate that "there’s a great future in plastics". Oil companies make ethylene and other basic building blocks for plastic and have been eyeing that market for growth as electric cars threaten to trim demand for petrol.

Plastic material’s ubiquity in packaging has left the world literally swimming in disused bottles, bags and wraps. This is starting to worry both environmentalists and the companies that use it the most. There’ll be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and those materials are finding their way into the food chain.

Bioplastics currently make up about 1% of the plastics market, according the industry’s organisation in Europe. They are made by processing sugars from plants and tend to have a smaller carbon footprint than their conventional counterparts. Some are also designed to naturally degrade after use. Top producers include São Paulo-based Braskem, NatureWorks in the US, and Novamont of Italy.

"Attitudes are evolving," said David Eyton, the head of technology at BP. "The question facing the petrochemicals industry that has yet to really be answered is, ‘How are people going to deal with some of the environmental impacts of petrochemicals? Particularly plastics, which are a growing concern’."

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that growth in the plastics market should boost petroleum demand. It takes about 8.5 barrels of oil-derived naphtha to produce the tonne of ethylene needed to manufacture 160,000 plastic bags, according to Bloomberg Intelligence calculations.

"Petrochemicals will take centre stage in driving oil demand," said IEA analyst Kim Tae-yoon. "This is why oil majors are very focused on petrochemicals."

Saudi Arabian Oil, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total are expanding their plastic footprints, according to the IEA. "We expect petrochemicals to grow 4% per year," said Ahmad al-Khowaiter, chief technology officer at Saudi Aramco. "It’s an opportunity we’re really trying to leverage."

Alternatives to traditional plastics are appearing. The new technology will have to compete against massive refineries that convert hundreds of thousands of barrels into plastics every day.

"Alternative raw materials must be competitive," Stora Enso’s chief financial officer Seppo Parvi said in an interview in London, anticipating eventual price parity with crude plastics. "I’m confident we’ll be able to do it."

Demand for bioplastics also needs to grow among retailers and consumers, according to Coke. "It won’t ever work if there’s just one big consumer company like a Coca-Cola trying to drive suppliers," said Ben Jordan, head of environmental policy at Coca-Cola. "You need more demand in industry."


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