• 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.

What are the Key challenges?

  • 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.
  • Apart from the stark differences in costs, plant-based plastics also give rise to the food-versus-fuel debate that has plagued biofuels
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The most promising feedstock in development today is algae, found abundantly in seawater.
  • To be sure, few of these “second-generation” and “third-generation” feedstocks, as they are called, are ready for commercial-scale use today.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.