Bioplastics or bio-based materials - Insights
In 2016, the EAI consulting team was tasked with doing a thorough market research on the future market potential of bioplastics in India.
At first, we were quite excited about bioplastics - the almost plastic equivalent that we get from polymerizing biomass and making them into PLA, mainly, which can replace LDPE. The technology appeared to be maturing, and the product characteristics were also improving.
But when we came to the economics, we are taken aback - bioplastics cost 3-5 times as much as their equivalent plastics. A no-go for a country like India.
But what concerned us even more was the fact that the market and competitive trends were such that we did not see the economics improve dramatically in just a few years as it did for solar.
And we were proved right. Even in 2022, the economics of bioplastics is quite challenging.
Zoom to an alternative - bio-based packaging and building materials which do not go through the polymerization route. Here, things are much simpler. Biomass such as agricultural waste is made into a pulp and moulded into the shape you want. No complex polymerization, and thus the operating costs are dramatically lower, leading to prices similar to what they are for plastic equivalents.
A key challenge with non-polymerized materials is that they cannot be made into thin plastic bags that are today made from LDPE, and stuff like that. Besides, the water retaining capacity of non-polymerized bio-based packing materials is also a challenge.
All said however, the latter - non-polymerized packaging materials - is a domain that could work well for India for a decade or even longer, perhaps until bioplastics really come of age.
Not surprisingly, there are quite a few interesting startups that use biomass as the base to building packaging materials and building products - Bambrew, GreenPod Labs, Bio-lutions & Krya Labs being some of them.