The Steep Cost of Bio-Based Plastic

Yves here. Gee, advanced economies might have to find out how to live without plastic. Jerri-Lynn, who spent a lot of time in India and Turkey, described the many ways those countries used vastly less, from comparatively little consumer packaging (much more sold at retail from bulk supplies, with customers often bringing their own containers) to the use of collapsable cups for drinks.

By Matt Simon, a science journalist at Wired. Originally published at the Wired and is reproduced by Undark as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

It’s the year 2050, and humanity has made huge progress in decarbonizing. That’s thanks in large part to the negligible price of solar and wind power, which was cratering even back in 2022. Yet the fossil fuel industry hasn’t just doubled down on making plastics from oil and gas — instead, as the World Economic Forum warned would happen, it has tripled production from 2016 levels. In 2050, humans are churning out trillions of pounds of plastic a year, and in the process emitting the greenhouse gas equivalent of over 600 coal-fired power plants. Three decades from now, we’ve stopped using so much oil and gas as fuel, yet way more of them as plastic.

Back here in 2022, people are trying to head off that nightmare scenario with a much-hyped concept called “bio-based plastics.” The backbones of traditional plastics are chains of carbon derived from fossil fuels. Bioplastics instead use carbon extracted from crops like corn or sugarcane, which is then mixed with other chemicals, like plasticizers, found in traditional plastics. Growing those plants pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and locks it inside the bioplastic — if it is used for a permanent purpose, like building materials, rather than single-use cups and bags.

At least, that’s the theory. In reality, bio-based plastics are problematic for a variety of reasons. It would take an astounding amount of land and water to grow enough plants to replace traditional plastics — plus energy is needed to produce and ship it all. Bioplastics can be loaded with the same toxic additives that make a plastic plastic, and still splinter into micro-sized bits that corrupt the landsea, and air. And switching to bioplastics could give the industry an excuse to keep producing exponentially more polymers under the guise of “eco-friendliness,” when scientists and environmentalists agree that the only way to stop the crisis is to just stop producing so much damn plastic, whatever its source of carbon.

But let’s say there was a large-scale shift to bioplastics — what would that mean for future emissions? That’s what a new paper in the journal Nature set out to estimate, finding that if a slew of variables were to align — and that’s a very theoretical if — bioplastics could go carbon-negative.

The modeling considered four scenarios for how plastics production — and the life cycle of those products — might unfold through the year 2100, modeling even further out than those earlier predictions about production through 2050. The first scenario is a baseline, in which business continues as usual. The second adds a tax on CO2 emissions, which would make it more expensive to produce fossil-fuel plastics, encouraging a shift toward bio-based plastics and reducing emissions through the end of the century. (It would also incentivize using more renewable energy to produce plastic.) The third assumes the development of a more circular economy for plastics, making them more easily reused or recycled, reducing both emissions and demand. And the last scenario imagines a circular bio-economy, in which much more plastic has its roots in plants, and is used over and over.

“Here, we combine all of these: We have the CO2 price in place, we have circular economy strategies, but additionally we kind of push more biomass into the sector by giving it a certain subsidy,” says the study’s lead author, Paul Stegmann, who’s now at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research but did the work while at Utrecht University, in cooperation with PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. If all three conditions are met, he says, it is enough to push emissions into the negative.

In this version of the future, people would still have to grow lots of crops to make bioplastics, but those plastics would be used — and reused — many times. “You basically put it into the system and keep it as long as possible,” says Stegmann.

To be clear, this is a hypothetical scenario, not a prediction for where the plastics industry is actually headed. Many pieces would have to fall together in just the right way for it to work. For one, Stegmann and his colleagues note in their paper, “a fully circular plastics sector will be impossible as long as plastic demand keeps growing.”

Plastics companies will happily meet that demand by ramping up production, says Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, which did the emissions report showing what would happen if plastics manufacturing grew through the year 2050. “The pivot to petrochemicals has been the plan for years now for the broader fossil fuel industry,” he says. “It’s understood that plastics, as well as nitrogen fertilizers, are the two real pillars of petrochemicals, which are the engine of growth for fossil fuels.”

And as long as the plastics industry keeps producing exponentially more of it, there’s no incentive to keep the stuff in circulation. It’s just so cheap to manufacture, which is why recycling straight-up doesn’t work in its current form. (Among the many reasons why scientists are calling for negotiators of a new treaty to add a cap on production is that it would increase the price and demand for recycled plastic.) Another wrinkle is that plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it becomes too degraded. Some products, like multilayered pouches, have become increasingly complicated to recycle, so wealthy nations have been shipping them all to economically developing countries to deal with. Which is about as far from a circular economy as you can get.

Another issue is the space needed to grow the feedstock crops. “It increases the already huge pressure on land use,” says Jānis Brizga, an environmental economist at the University of Latvia, who studies bio-based plastics but wasn’t involved in the new paper. “Land use change has been one of the main drivers for biodiversity loss — we’re just pushing out all the other species.”

In 2020, Brizga published a paper calculating how much land it would take to grow enough plants for bioplastics to replace all the traditional plastics used in packaging. The answer: At a minimum, an area bigger than France, requiring 60 percent more water than the European Union’s annual freshwater withdrawal. (The new paper did model some land-use considerations, like restricting where biomass could be grown, but Stegmann says that a better understanding of the implications of this biomass growth is an avenue for future research.)

It would also take a whole lot of chemicals to keep those plants healthy. “Many of these crops are produced in intensive agricultural systems that use a lot of pesticides and herbicides and synthetic chemicals,” Brizga says. “Most of them are also very, very dependent on fossil fuels.”

And from a human health perspective, we don’t even want to keep plastics circulating around us. A growing body of evidence links their component chemicals to health problems: One study linked phthalates (a plasticizer chemical) to 100,000 early deaths each year in the U.S., and the researchers were being conservative with that estimate. Microplastics are showing up in people’s blood, breast milk, lungs, guts, and even newborns’ first feces, because we’re absolutely surrounded by plastic products — clothing, carpeting, couches, bottles, bags.

It’s also not clear what kind of climate effect the plastics will have after they’re produced. Early research on microplastics suggests that they release significant amounts of methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas — as they break down in the environment. Even if a circular bioplastics economy attempts to keep carbon and methane locked up by turning plastics into long-term building materials or landfilling whatever can’t be used again, nobody knows for sure if it will work. We need more research on how plastics off-gas their carbon under different conditions.

The more plastic we produce, the more corrupted the environment grows — it’s already poisoning organisms and destabilizing ecosystems. “I fear that by the time we get enough answers to all of our questions, it will be too late,” says Kim Warner, senior scientist at the advocacy group Oceana, who wasn’t involved in the new paper. “The train will have already left the station, for what it’s doing to the atmosphere and the oceans and carbon and health and everything else.”

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  1. Jams O'Donnell

    I think we are beginning to get an inkling of why we have found no evidence of other ‘intelligent’ species in the Universe. It seems likely that some combination of either war or pollution or climate change, driven by runaway capitalism, will have done for them, as it also seems likely for us.

  2. bassmule

    “Another wrinkle is that plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it becomes too degraded.”

    Not true. “The thermoplastics can be remolded & recycled without negatively affecting the material’s physical properties, They can soften when they are heated & they become more fluid as additional heat is applied, The curing process is completely reversible because no chemical bonding takes place.”

    Thermoplastics properties, types, uses, advantages and disadvantages

    1. Ham Saplo

      “The curing process is completely reversible…”

      Not true.

      Degradation of plastics occurs during initial processing generally with molecular weight changes due to shearing and oxidation while molten. The degradation continues during end use by interaction of the solid plastic with heat and light (UV radiation.) UV radiation particularly interactions with carbon/oxygen species and initiates degradative chain reactions.

      Heat, light and process stabilizers can be used but are not 100% efficient. In the 1990’s Ciba tried to market a compound line “recyclostab” that turned out to have the same components as the stabilizers that are used in virgin polymers.

      It makes more sense to find ways of removing plastics frm the environment by depolymerizion, for example, or grinding degraded polymer into fuel for burning.

  3. The Rev Kev

    This whole idea is totally ridiculous and would be a total waste of diminishing resources which cannot be replaced. It is like the idea of solving the problem of diminishing oil by doing fracking which works in the short time but will leave catastrophic damage in its wake that the corporations that profited from it will never have to pay to attempt to fix. Using this idea of bioplastics, it may lead to where those countries that depend on it will always be structurally weaker than those countries that force themselves to cut back and use natural materials instead. What this whole idea reminds me of was how a decade or more ago energy usage was being slowly cut back which was a necessary trend. I thought it a good sign. But then some idiots came up with the idea of cryptocurrency which involved server farms, re-dedicated coal plants and god knows what else until the energy requirements needed to power this junk idea rivaled that of a mid-size country.

    1. dandyandy

      In a way the whole cryptocurrency scam goes to show how cheap the energy still is. All those fossil fuels burned to create electricity so to create a useless ponzu scam, is just breathtaking.

      Of course, the first in chain made a killing as expressed in fiat paper but nevertheless good energy had to be converted into heat to enable this. In Chamonix, 16 meters thickness of Mer-de-Glacé, melted away in the last year or two, down to rock.

      I suppose if one thinks of deliveroos and justeats of this world, £30 gets you a dish for 3, delivered to your feet by a dedicated slave. Another business model to die when fossil fuels get repriced to reflect the real life scarcity.

      1. Jes

        Almost zero BTC mining involves domestic energy sources, it’s simply not profitable. Mining by design seeks out stranded energy and allows it to be used (rather than burned off) to turn into usable currency.
        In comparison to the energy used to run the banking/finance or gold mining sectors, BTC mining is irrelevant. But sure, find a scapegoat and rant away….

  4. Paris

    We use land nowadays to produce biofuels, which is a waste of resources in my opinion. Then it is suggested we use land to produce bioplastics. Meanwhile, the same woke people are suggesting we use labs to grow food (all those plant based food are chemical lab foods). Isn’t that crazy? It is crazy.
    The only solution in my opinion is not coming soon enough, and that’s in a few decades when the population reaches a maximum and God willing starts decreasing.

    1. dandyandy

      Apologies, I don’t mean to hog the comments section here, but false food is already reality at least in UK.

      The other day, having a New Years lunch in my local pub, there was a Beyond Meat (r) item on the menu. A couple years ago, I delisted my kid from his (very expensive, private) school meals as they were pushing something called “Quorn”. My local supermarket seems to be selling quite a few “ersatz meats”.

      Nobody anywhere is making any comments in this, in press, in conversations, anywhere. Everybody is busy reading about a spoiled imbecile brat dishing dirt on his family.

      I know now what the lemmings felt like as they rushed off that cliff.

    2. iridaniotter

      Yeah darn those woke scientists farming super efficient yeast for whey instead of cows… Look, I don’t know the stats for lab-grown meat, but there’s a reason why much of the world’s rennet is now produced by bacteria instead of cows. It’s more efficient in water, land, CO2, etc to engineer single cell life to produce things than it is to farm big multicellular livestock.

      Btw as it stands the only lab grown plant based foods are mycoprotein (is eating mushrooms woke?), and the ingredients whey and heme (the latter is one ingredient of either beyond or impossible but another major ingredient is literally just pea protein).

    3. lambert strether

      > We use land nowadays to produce biofuels

      Hydrocarbons -> plants -> hydrocarbons has never made sense.

      Maybe with the Iowa primary de-emphasized, the ethanol “industry” will be cut down to size, like zero.

  5. Carlotta

    Plastic is wonderful in certain situations. However, why does food tha has a shelf life of a few weeks at most, i.e. Milk, come in plastic bottles that last thousands of years?

    Couldn’t milk and other perishables be packaged in plastic that breaks down into water and carbon dioxide in a few years?

    1. Paris

      Why doesn’t somebody create a reliable milk delivery system in glass bottles like we used to have in the not so distant past?

  6. dandyandy

    Slightly related; we were trying to find ways of replacing concrete with recycled plastic of sorts, for use in building industry. We zoomed into rPET, being of desirable physical properties and 100% recyclable (it gets made out of fossil base only in the first iteration, after that it can be recycled practically forever).

    Anyhoo, the demand from the big soft drinks manufacturers (looking at you, big CC), has rocketed over the last 2-3 years, to an extent that the project is becoming non-feasible..

    Single use soft drink bottles trump 50-70 years building applications.

    1. Paris

      The consumption of soft drinks in the West has declined. The wokesters are consuming bottled water lol. I’m serious, Pepsi and Coke have multiple brands of bottled common (non mineral) water. Another huge waste of resources.

  7. playon

    I would like to cut down on my personal use of plastics but it hardly seems possible now. A completely different model of retail would have to be put into place, particularly in supermarkets. Buying products in bulk should be the norm — once upon a time you went to a general store with your own containers and you would cut your own hunk of cheese or butter, the butcher would wrap your cuts of meat etc instead of everything being individually wrapped in plastic. There is no reason that liquid products such as detergents, juice, honey, could not be dispensed in bulk, the same goes for many products such as dry pet food etc. The suburban model of the supermarket which came to prominence after WWII should not still exist. But of course this would mean much advertising via product containers would have to go, so it’s not likely to happen.

    1. Phenix

      It’s costs capital more money to employ butchers amd lay out the physical infrastructure to create and maintain that product line.

  8. Grebo

    Recyclable, biodegradable plastics made from agricultural waste. They exist already, at least in the lab. I wonder why this article does not mention the idea. No imagination? or it doesn’t want to dilute the doom?

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