Plastics essentially consist of carbon chains with attached hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The carbon in those chains can stem from petroleum – or renewable raw materials. Polymers that are not manufactured from the increasingly scarce and expensive petroleum, but renewable raw materials such as starch or cellulose, are called biopolymers. These represent promising, sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based resources, because, in principle, the starting material is available in unlimited amounts. In addition, polyester-based bioplastics are environmentally compatible, because they decompose over time. Experts estimate that bioplastics could replace up to 90 percent of all conventional plastics in the future. So far, however, biopolymers have been a side-show compared to their conventional petrochemical competitors. According to a study conducted by the industry association European Bioplastics and the University of Hannover, 2011 only saw 1.2 million metric tons produced worldwide – less than one percent of global plastics production. The reasons for this are quite obvious: the properties of bioplastics are still often not equal to those of comparable conventional plastics and bioplastics are generally more expensive and difficult to process by well-established industrial methods.
However, the chemical and plastics processing industries as well as research institutes are working intensely on developing new and improved bioplastics. The research drive is showing up in above-average market growth with global production capacity for biopolymers set to increase fivefold to six million tons by 2016.