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Opinion A Global Race

Opinion A Global Race for Land Will it be biofuels or bioplastics that win the global race for land? By: Matthew Aylott Science Writer for the NNFCC Heslington, York, UK Maize or corn We read a lot about how bioplastics offer a viable alternative to traditional plastics but there is still a fundamental question that remains unanswered; where will we find the large quantities of biomass needed to actually make them in an increasingly competitive marketplace? Over the next decade global production capacity for bioplastics is likely to reach 3-4 million tonnes a year, and this will significantly increase demand for feedstocks. But it won’t just be bioplastics manufacturers who will be after these resources; bioenergy and biofuel producers will also be looking to buy crops. In the future, this competition for resources could lead to increased costs as companies compete for feedstocks, putting greater pressure on sustainability. “But this can be avoided if your business is prepared”, as Dr. John Williams, Head of Materials for Energy and Industry at the NNFCC explains, “We have been doing a lot of work for companies looking at future scenarios for bioplastic feedstocks and the competition with energy and fuel.” “In particular we are developing some quite sophisticated models with brand owners. Businesses need to be aware of what the future holds and how they can be proactive rather reactive to the changing marketplace,” he adds. A competitive market place Many feedstocks used in manufacturing bioplastics have multiple uses. For example, starch crops like maize are grown primarily as an animal feed, but are also eaten by you and me, made into paper, board, ethanol and a host of other industrial uses. Likewise sugar crops like sugar beet and sugar cane are used to produce raw sugar for food use (sucrose), and also in the manufacture of ethanol for fuel and in chemical applications. How we source our feedstocks and plan for the future is a challenge. On paper we have plenty of room to grow enough crops to meet all our short-term needs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development we could more than double the amount of land in crop production around the globe, from 1.4 billion to over 3.3 billion hectares. However, this expansion could be environmentally damaging and unsustainable. Excluding forests, protected areas and land needed for increased food production, there are potentially between 0.25 and 0.8 billion hectares of additional land available for bioenergy, biofuels and bioplastics crops. 44 bioplastics MAGAZINE [05/11] Vol. 6

Opinion Up to 2050 We believe bioplastics could potentially produce up to 30 % of all plastics by 2050 or 230 million tonnes per year. If the market continued to grow as it is, without any major biotechnology breakthroughs, this would require 0.08 billion hectares of land. In addition, The International Energy Agency suggests that just over a quarter of the fuel we use could be replaced with biofuel by 2050 and this would require 0.1 billion hectares (when using crops, wastes and agricultural residues). The use of biomass for energy will also continue to increase and could represent nearly 20 % of the total energy market by 2050 or 0.3 billion hectares. Sugar cane Ample room All together this falls below the amount of land potentially available for bioenergy, biofuels and bioplastics crops. But even converting this ’available’ land remains a challenge, as much of it is on continents like Africa and Latin America, often far from agricultural infrastructure and significant investment would be needed to realistically make this land available for cultivating crops. Bioplastics manufacturers face increasing competition from food, biofuel and bioenergy producers for the most accessible renewable feedstocks. And producers and users of bioplastics will be judged on their ability to manage supply chains sustainably. This will rely on the development and implementation of suitable assessment tools and procedures. The NNFCC (for National Non Food Crop Centre) are the UK’s National Centre for Biorenewable Energy, Fuels and Materials, located in York, UK. The NNFCC is committed to the sustainable development of markets for biorenewable products. They promote the benefits of biorenewable energy, fuels and materials for enhancement of the bioeconomy, environment and society. Maize or corn Beyond 2050 And what would happen if we wanted to make 100 % of our plastics, 100 % of our energy and 100 % of our fuels from biomass? Put simply there would be insufficient land globally, to sustainably co-produce 100 % of our plastics, energy and fuel from biomass using current technology. Thankfully there are alternatives sources of renewable energy other than biomass, but biomass is our ONLY alternative to petrochemicals for manufacturing bioplastics. This means that in the long-term the market is more likely to push bio-based feedstocks towards bioplastics. And in the short-term bioplastics will benefit from the expansion of biofuel and bioenergy markets, including logistical and technology developments such as the ability to process lignocellulosic feedstocks like wood. Moving away from starch based crops could potentially reduce land use requirements by more than 50 %, and lignin recovered from lignocellulose to chemical production could provide process energy. While this should be cause for optimism across the bioplastics industry, there remains a long way to go before they can sustainably replace plastics made from petrochemicals. bioplastics MAGAZINE [05/11] Vol. 6 45

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