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SE01EP04 — Bioplastics: A Promising Industry

SE01EP04 — Bioplastics: A Promising Industry

Scientists have calculated that unless something drastic is done within the next 30 years, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. It’s hard to underestimate just how essential bioplastics will be enough.

In this episode of Trading Places, we’ll dive into a new industry: bioplastics — a kind of plastic made from renewable resources, such as sugar or waste, and that comes with promises.

Tune in, and you’ll learn:

03:10 — The difference between various types of plastic

"Conventional plastics that we use every day — whether they’re in packaging or clothing or cars — they’re made from oil and gas. They’re often called fossil-based plastics, whereas bio-based plastics, (also called bio-plastics or biopolymers) are made from a natural biomass material. This ranges from things like wood and sawdust to plants like corn, potatoes, sugar, and so on. So there’s a huge range of materials that come under that broad buyer plastic category."

07:15 — Why recycling plastics is not as easy as it’s sold to consumers

"Where it’s a bioplastic, that’s just a drop-in. So it’s PET. Or it’s polyethylene. That’s fine. They can just get recycled with the other plastic bottles. Where it’s a completely new material — that’s where it [recycling] gets complicated. One of the common new materials is called PLA and that’s a compostable plastic, but it looks exactly like PET."

08:38 — Why the word "biodegradable" is not an indicator of environmentally-friendly packaging

"There's so much confusion over the language and the labels. One of the most common words you see bandied around is biodegradable. And biodegradable sounds great, but it’s meaningless. Really all it’s saying is that it’s something that will break down over an unspecified period of time. It might break down in this environment, but not in that environment, it doesn’t actually help. And it’s actually quite misleading."

"…because if it breaks down in the environment, it becomes microplastics in the short term, which are dangerous. Eventually it may break down into carbon dioxide and biomass but it will take a long period of time…"

12:02 — Why having a recycling logo on a packaging does not mean its sustainable

"I think big plastic manufacturing companies would have known for some time that only a very small portion of plastic was being recycled. Yet they still continue to use the recycling logos and they’ll running recycling campaigns creating this perception that their products were sustainable."

13:05 — The problem of misleading information in the market

"It was very difficult 10 years ago when I joined the bioplastic market and it made perfect sense to me that why would you produce something out of plastic when you can produce it out of a bioplastic that can be composted safely back into the environment and work indefinitely in that virtuous cycle.

I thought this was, this was just fantastic. But when we went to the market and tried to sell it, you know, it costs more, it didn’t have the support of waste streams. People said, why would I buy compostable plastic potentially pay more?"

20:25 — How a company creating bioplastics gets its customers

"Back then, we were not trying to knock on the door of brands, and we weren’t really getting anywhere. Now we’re getting brands come to us and say, can you help us produce our products in a more sustainable way?"

22:35 — The investment landscape of the bioplastics industry

"Europe's a big buyer as well. The US is starting to invest heavily in those precursors. So we’re seeing more and more investment in different raw materials and in capacity for these precursors so that the bioplastic industry can keep up with demand…"

23:13 — What the supply chain of a bioplastics company looks like

"We've been very fortunate that we have multiple manufacturing facilities — three in Malaysia and one in China. And we have sales offices in the US and Australia and distribution in Mexico. This allowed us to be close to our customer."

23:30 — How COVID-19 impacted the bioplastics logistics worldwide

"We've seen some of the shipping delays blow out from, you know, a two week shipping trip is taking sometimes up to three months now, um, you know, a $ 5,000 cost to ship a container is costing up to $ 20,000 or $ 30,000."

23:50 — How to avoid tariffs in the US by shipping out of other markets

"We're very fortunate that we have no debt on our balance sheet and we are a business that can hold a lot of inventory. We have multiple manufacturing facilities and multiple distribution channels. We deal with the US tariffs by supplying into the US out of Malaysia. We can avoid tariffs. And we can be more competitive that way with the US market. We still supply out of China to other markets where there’s free trade agreements in place."

Where to find this episode:

Anchor | Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts

Host: Rachel Williamson


— Helen Lewis — a consultant working in the area of sustainable packaging and plastics.

— Richard Tacony — chairman of Seco Script Limited.

Producer/Director: Sonny Sanjay Vadgama

Showrunner: Sergey Faldin

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