In December 2019, I took part in eXXpedition Round the World leg 5, sailing from Aruba to Panama via de San Blas islands analyzing the presence of microplastics in the water. During the voyage between Aruba and the San Blas archipelago, we took water samples in open clear seas and, much to our surprise, we found microplastics in every single sample. As we approached the San Blas islands, we tracked over a hundred items of plastic waste making their way to the islands from all over the Caribbean (or who knows where).

From afar, the San Blas islands looked like a scene out of the film Blue Lagoon but as we set foot in a remote uninhabited island of Cayos Holandeses, the scene was completely different. It looked more like a landfill than a beach – layers and layers of waste: from drink bottles to shoes, Styrofoam cups, single-use cutlery, toothbrushes, deodorant containers, hair combs, ear swaps, soda cans, chemical product cans and even light bulbs. Sadly, this was a reflection of our consumption habits and I couldn’t help but think of how many plastic toothbrushes or deodorants I must’ve used in my lifetime. Surely, we all need to change our consumption habits if we want to close the tap on plastic. And the industry must change too.

In recent years, innovators have been on a mission to seek more ‘eco-friendly’ alternatives to plastic such as bioplastics. Although they have been around for some time now, according to the report published by Clarivate, ‘From the plastics present to a sustainable future’, the first bioplastic was invented in the late 19th century by Alexander Parkes, now bioplastics are being used to make containers made from rice starch, edible food wrappers or even sugar-cane derived bioplastic Lego kits. However, global bioplastics production in 2019 was 2.11 million tons, just a fraction compared to the more than 359 million tons of plastic produced annually, and growth is expected to be modest.

Bioplastics are defined as a plastic material that is either biobased, biodegradable, or features both properties. Biobased means that the material or product is derived (partly) from biomass (plants). Does that mean that it’s biodegradable? Not necessarily – that depends on its chemical structure. It could be compostable, require as much time as traditional plastic to break down, or be biodegradable. What happens if it is biodegradable? Biodegradable bioplastics today can only break down in the right conditions and require industrial composting facilities that can specifically handle bioplastics waste. If large quantities of compostable bioplastics are composted, there may be high volumes of methane production at these bioplastics’ end-of-life but that also poses an opportunity to convert that methane into energy.

According to the report ‘From the plastics present to a sustainable future’, there is interest in bioplastics materials as a replacement for traditional petrochemical-based polymers in packaging supply chains but it’s growth is still slow. The report analyses bioplastic innovation in the food, beverage and cosmetic packaging industry, which account for just under half of all bioplastic packaging patent activity. Since 2012, there’s been over 2,400 patents filed for bioplastic food, beverage and cosmetics packaging (figure below):

However, 40% of all inventions concerning food, beverage or cosmetics bioplastic packaging are held by organizational applicants with just one invention. This means that the sector is still immature, with no company or entity having a dominant or competitive advantage position over any other. And this also means that there’s an opportunity for companies to innovate in this space.

In order to close the tap on single-use plastic, we need human attitudes towards waste to shift, governments to clamp down on single-use plastic with ban policies and companies to innovate in the right direction, whether that’s in the bioplastics space or other plastic alternatives.