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# Bioplastics for a circular economy

## Abstract

Bioplastics — typically plastics manufactured from bio-based polymers — stand to contribute to more sustainable commercial plastic life cycles as part of a circular economy, in which virgin polymers are made from renewable or recycled raw materials. Carbon-neutral energy is used for production and products are reused or recycled at their end of life (EOL). In this Review, we assess the advantages and challenges of bioplastics in transitioning towards a circular economy. Compared with fossil-based plastics, bio-based plastics can have a lower carbon footprint and exhibit advantageous materials properties; moreover, they can be compatible with existing recycling streams and some offer biodegradation as an EOL scenario if performed in controlled or predictable environments. However, these benefits can have trade-offs, including negative agricultural impacts, competition with food production, unclear EOL management and higher costs. Emerging chemical and biological methods can enable the ‘upcycling’ of increasing volumes of heterogeneous plastic and bioplastic waste into higher-quality materials. To guide converters and consumers in their purchasing choices, existing (bio)plastic identification standards and life cycle assessment guidelines need revision and homogenization. Furthermore, clear regulation and financial incentives remain essential to scale from niche polymers to large-scale bioplastic market applications with truly sustainable impact.

## Introduction

Polymers exhibit diverse material properties — ranging, for example, from flexible to stiff, from permeable to impermeable and from hydrophilic to hydrophobic. These properties are determined by the structure of the repeating building blocks of the polymers: the monomers. Once the polymeric material has been processed and formed into its final and commercially relevant shape, typically using heat, they are called plastics1. Most plastics are thermoplastics composed of linear polymer chains that allow thermal reshaping, such as those used in bottles and textiles, whereas some polymers are crosslinked during processing to form thermosets, which are tougher than thermoplastics and their shape is largely unaffected by temperature, such as those used in car tyres and epoxies. In this Review, we refer to these materials as ‘polymers’ when discussing their physicochemical properties and their synthesis before processing into their final shape, and use ‘plastics’ to describe the more commercially relevant forms of polymers processed into products. Many of these materials have an integral role in modern life and are especially important in the transportation, food, health-care and energy industries. Plastics are also essential to many aspects of sustainability: lightweight plastic materials improve the fuel efficiency of cars and aeroplanes, plastic insulators can increase energy savings and plastic food packaging increases shelf life, which can reduce food waste2. Annual plastic production is >380 million tonnes and increasing at an annual rate of 4%; consequently, 6,300 million tonnes of plastic waste have been generated since 1950 (refs3,4). Increasing concern regarding the environmental impact of plastic waste and the plastic-related emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) motivates the transition towards a ‘circular plastic economy’. In a circular economy, the use of non-renewable resources and waste production is minimized, while reuse and recycling dominate the life cycles of materials.

Although most commercial plastics are made from fossil resources, these materials can also be made from renewable resources and are commonly referred to as bioplastics. In this case, the monomers are extracted or synthesized from biomass compounds (such as sugars in plants) and then polymerized to either make a direct replacement for an existing plastic, such as polyethylene (PE), or novel polymers, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). Biomass extraction can also yield non-synthetic natural polymers, such as starch, natural rubber and proteins. Note that, although the term ‘bioplastic’ is frequently used, it remains misunderstood, owing to the ambiguity of the definition (Box 1). Bioplastics are plastics that are either made from renewable resources (‘bio-based’), are biodegradable, are made through biological processes or a combination of these. Some biodegradable but fossil-based plastics are also referred to as bioplastics2,5; however, the use of this terminology is advised against, as it is misleading6,7.

Bioplastics that are 100% bio-based are currently produced at a scale of ~2 million tonnes per year and are considered a part of future circular economies to help achieve some of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals, such as by diverting from fossil resources, introducing new recycling or degradation pathways and using less toxic reagents and solvents in production processes5,8,9,10,11. Depending on type, bioplastics can offer improved circularity by using renewable (non-fossil) resources, a lower carbon footprint, biodegradation as an alternative end-of-life (EOL) option and improved material properties. These benefits, however, are highly dependent on several factors, including the chemical structure, the manufacturing process and the most likely EOL scenario. All these factors have to be evaluated across the life cycle, along metrics such as climate impact, ecotoxicity and recyclability, using tools such as a life cycle assessment (LCA) to elucidate the environmental benefit over alternatives6,12,13. Similar to traditional plastics, bioplastics also raise concerns relating to the leaching of monomers, oligomers and additives, and, therefore, require the same scrutiny in product design and formulation14. Given the trade-offs, the implementation of bioplastics faces several challenges (Box 1).

In this Review, we discuss the benefits and risks of technologies for the production and recycling of bioplastics towards informing circular economy principles. We start by briefly reviewing the environmental issues relating to plastic production and disposal, before outlining the principles of a circular economy. The remainder of the Review is organized according to the stages along the supply chain of bioplastics. We address technological advances in bioplastic feedstocks and manufacturing, consider the EOL options and culminate in an appraisal of commercial and regulatory aspects. This Review covers scientific literature, governmental and non-governmental organization reports and industry trends up to the end of 2021.

## Environmental impact of plastic

### The ‘plastic problem’

Environmental plastic pollution has become a priority of major global entities, including the UN15,16, the World Economic Forum (WEF)17, the World Health Organization18 and the European Union (EU)19. The plastics industry has traditionally implemented mostly linear processes focused on extracting raw materials and converting them into useful products, rather than recycling or reusing products2,20. The overall production of non-fibre plastics since 1950 has been dominated by PE (36.4%), polypropylene (PP; 21%) and polyvinylchloride (PVC; 12%), while the fibres market largely comprises polyethylene terephthalate (PET; 70%). The largest global plastic volumes in commercial sectors in 2015 were in packaging (35.9%), construction (16.0%), textiles (14.5%) and consumer goods (10.3%)3. The automotive, electronics and agricultural industries also use considerable amounts of plastics (for example, 10.1%, 6.2% and 3.4%, respectively, in the EU in 2016)2,19,21. Packaging is considered the greatest source of waste globally, with 146 million tonnes produced in 2015, of which 141 million tonnes went unrecycled (96.6%). Packaging also tends to have the shortest working life out of all industrial plastic sectors3. For single-use plastics, the working life, from use to disposal, can be as short as a few minutes.

Owing to poor waste management, ~1–5% of all plastic ends up as waste in terrestrial and, predominantly, oceanic environments. Approximately 80% of oceanic plastic debris comes from land, typically from mismanaged landfills and kerbsides that are plundered by sea tides and wind16,22. Around two million tonnes of plastic debris leach into rivers each year, occurring in both developing countries, which lack adequate collection and waste treatment infrastructures, and industrialized nations, such as China and the USA22,23,24. This issue is amplified by ‘external dumping’ — that is, plastic shipped from wealthier nations to those with inferior waste management infrastructures and regulations15,16,25,26. This problem is now being addressed by UN member states through the 2019 Basel Convention’s Plastic Waste Amendments, which aim to regulate global plastic waste trade27.

Within oceanic environments, submerged plastic pieces can choke marine life. Moreover, microplastic particles, which are <1–5 mm in size and are typically created by abrasion and ultraviolet (UV) light degradation, can ascend within the food chain; today, microplastic particles can be found in tap water, air, fish and salt18,28,29. These particles are potentially harmful because of their particulate nature and because they can absorb and carry contaminants, such as additives and hydrophobic organic chemicals30. The majority (98%) of oceanic microplastic particles comes from land-based sources, mainly from washing synthetic clothes (35% of total marine microplastics, coming mainly from Asia) and abrasion of car tyres (especially from North America)31,32,33. Although current levels of microplastic particles in freshwater are considered too low to be harmful18,30,34, they can have deleterious effects at higher levels. Worms, amphipods, oysters and crabs exhibited impaired growth, inflammation and reduced cognitive function upon exposure to higher levels of microplastic particles35,36,37. Gravitational sinking and seabed currents lead to localized and concentrated deposits of microplastics in some sea-floor ecosystems38. Plastic pollution is also costly: in the Asia-Pacific region alone, the economic damage to the tourism, fishing and shipping industries is estimated to be US$1.3 billion per year15, and the WEF estimates the annual cost of global marine litter to be$40 billion39.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the ‘plastic problem’, creating urgent demand for single-use plastic personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and face shields. Several bans on single-use plastic were temporarily reverted, reusable shopping bags were banned and, in some places, traditionally recyclable plastic food containers were considered hazardous, owing to potential pathogenic contamination40. Consequently, the amount of medical plastic waste has increased by 3–10-fold beyond local waste treatment capacities in certain places, such as China and Jordan, and the UN expects short-lived items, such as hundreds of millions of masks, to end up mainly in landfills or the ocean40,41. Indeed, the pandemic has gravely accentuated the inability of existing waste management systems to cope with surging amounts of potentially hazardous plastic waste42. Yet, as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres has stated, “pandemic recovery is our chance to change course,” through policies and investments in sustainable technologies43.

## Bio-based raw materials

Similar to the traditional concept of an oil refinery, ‘biorefineries’ convert renewable bio-based feedstocks into useful chemicals63,64,65,66. Biomass is a relatively quickly renewing resource and is typically divided into first-generation and second-generation feedstocks. The former typically corresponds to readily fermentable sugars from edible polysaccharide sources, such as corn and sugarcane, and edible vegetable oils. Although some studies suggest that it is possible to sustainably co-produce biomass for both food and fuel (and, thus, also for bio-based materials)67,68, first-generation biomass remains controversial, owing to ethical concerns about the potential competition with food resources, especially in local settings46. Currently, 0.02% of global agricultural land use is devoted to producing precursors for bioplastics8. A total replacement of fossil resources for plastics with biomass, however, is unlikely, highlighting the need for reduced consumption and improved recycling. A complete switch of the 170 million tonnes of global packaging plastics produced per year to bioplastics has been estimated to require 54% of the current corn production and 60% more than Europe’s annual freshwater withdrawal69.

Second-generation biomass describes various non-edible biowastes that offer a more ethically viable and widely available, albeit more complex, feedstock70. For example, more than 1 billion tonnes of agricultural and food waste are produced globally each year, and ~20% of domestic waste is food waste71,72,73. Research towards future biorefineries aims to establish processes to convert lignocellulosic biomass, such as wheat straw and sugarcane bagasse. These agricultural wastes are typically inexpensive but require additional pretreatment steps to liberate fermentable cellulose and hemicellulose sugars from the protective, phenolic, crosslinked lignin polymer network74,75,76,77.

Another source of polysaccharides is seaweed78,79, which includes brown and red algae. The most abundant polysaccharides in brown algae are alginates, which comprise up to 40% of their dry weight. Alginates can react and gel with divalent or trivalent cations and can be blended with starches to make biodegradable plastic films with low gas permeability and other desirable mechanical properties.

Vegetable and plant oils also provide access to various monomers. Similar to sugars, edible oils raise concerns over food competition and deforestation80,81, while non-edible oils or waste oils are more ethically and ecologically viable80. Vegetable oils9,82 contain triglycerides with unsaturated fatty acids, which can be epoxidized to make epoxy resins. Polyols that are naturally found in some fruits and vegetables are used for the synthesis of bio-based polyurethanes (bioPUs). Terpenes9, which contain isoprene units, are compounds found in plant oils. Polyisoprene is produced on a multimillion-tonne scale and is widely used as natural rubber. Limonene, a terpene obtained from lemon peel, can be used to make bio-based polycarbonates (bioPCs) that are free of bisphenol A by reacting limonene epoxide with CO2 (refs83,84).

Investment and scaling of bioplastic technologies, however, remains a high-risk business, with the central problem of uncertain demand owing to high prices and undefined EOL treatment, although larger scales could reduce prices and create demand and incentives for recycling infrastructure. In 2010, Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland opened a plant for the production of 55 kt of PHA per year in Iowa (USA)237. But, 2 years later, forecasted sales projections were not fulfilled and profits could not cover operational costs. Archer Daniels Midland wrote off its $339 million investment and Metabolix sold the technology to CheilJedang (South Korea) and rebranded into Yield10 Bioscience to shift its focus to crop research. Today, the commercial production of PHA has seen a revival, with companies such as Danimer Scientific (USA) and RWDC Industries (USA and Singapore) scaling up in light of confirmed contracts in the packaging and fast-moving consumer goods sectors106. Tepha (USA) is focusing on medical PHA applications, for which the profit margins are much higher, which may provide a stepping stone towards bulk plastic production110. NatureWorks (USA) scaled rapidly and, in 2002, opened a plant to produce 70 kt of PLA per year; necessary optimization of a process step at a large scale manifested in billion-dollar losses over several years before breaking even68,238. The threat of rising oil prices owing to a supply shortage, once advertised as the main driver for renewable-resource-based materials, has not materialized. Technological advances in horizontal deep drilling and fracking continue to enable the harvesting of increasingly remote oil reservoirs, and oil prices are expected to remain competitive for decades to come63. The prices of bioplastics and fossil-based plastics8,66,118 are compared in Table 1, showing that current bioplastic premiums can be ~50% (bioPE) but also 3–4 times more expensive (PHAs) than established fossil plastics. Besides higher production costs, there is an increase in demand over supply for popular bioplastics such as PLA and PHAs106. Note that most prices are taken from the literature before the COVID-19 crisis, which temporarily reduced oil and petrochemical prices, although these have now returned to pre-pandemic values239. There is now a bioplastic replacement for almost every application of fossil-derived polymers; however, most replacements are more expensive and currently end up landfilled or incinerated. There are several examples of bioplastics that have penetrated the fossil-based plastic market (Fig. 2). For single-use disposable items, bioplastics are growing in popularity. In food packaging, their typically insufficient barrier properties are often enhanced with a slim halogenated polymer or metal layer. The European Commission has ranked the usefulness of biodegradable plastic in applications from beneficial (for example, bags for biowaste and teabags) to detrimental (such as single-use cups and bottles)207. For applications in which durability is crucial, the use of bio-based polymers is underexplored. ## Policy and regulations Governments and international bodies are increasingly prioritizing circular economy principles. The UN named plastic pollution a priority during its 73rd Session (2018–2019). In 2019, 187 UN member nations amended the directives of the 1989 Basel Convention on global hazardous materials shipping and trade to include plastic waste, adding new transparency and regulatory requirements27. The UN Industrial Development Organization and G20 nations, as well as the Plastic Waste Partnership, are collaborating on circular economy measures. Activities span the plastic life cycle, from selective plastic bans and easily understandable labelling to helping consumers participate in waste management and financial incentives for renewable resources and chemical recycling16,39. Regarding bioplastics, the Convention’s Open-ended Working Group recommends that nations clearly define and standardize the identification of bio(degradable) plastics, improve bioplastic production processes to become economically and ecologically competitive with fossil-based plastics and develop universal techno-economic analysis methodologies to quantify the environmental benefit of bioplastics179. The WEF, together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, is promoting science-based policy initiatives for a circular plastics economy2. Recommendations include adopting EPR schemes and clearer labelling standards for bioplastic materials. A recent report offers strategies to curb plastic leakage into oceans by 80% by 2040 (ref.48). These proposals include reducing waste exports into countries with high leakage rates by 90%, doubling global mechanical recycling capacity, improving design-for-recycling to expand global recyclable plastic from 21% to 54% and implementing known solutions to eliminate major microplastic sources48. The EU has announced several plastics policies under the framework of the European Green Deal and its Circular Economy Action Plan. One goal is a recycling target of 50% for plastic packaging by 2030. As of January 2021, several single-use plastic items (such as straws, cutlery, food and beverage containers made from polystyrene and cotton bud sticks) and all oxo-degradable plastics have been banned for sale in the EU240. Following the Basel agreements, low-grade plastic waste exports outside EU borders will be restricted as of 2021 (ref.241). A tax on non-recycled plastic of €800 per tonne was implemented in 2021 to motivate manufacturing industries to adopt alternative recyclable, reusable or compostable materials242. EPR schemes implemented in many EU countries have proved useful in shifting EOL costs from local governments to producers but are generally limited to packaging materials. Their scope needs to be expanded to other plastic-intensive industries (including agriculture, textiles, medical and construction) and their implementation requires improvement, especially by harmonizing definitions of what is considered ‘recyclable’ from a local and chemical perspective187. Regarding bioplastics, the EU is developing a regulatory framework to determine which applications are appropriate for them, with the goal of preventing false sustainability claims (that is, greenwashing) by companies. As part of the regulatory framework, the EU plans to revise and harmonize existing standards (such as EN 13432) to account for more realistic biodegradation testing207,243. China, the world’s largest producer of single-use plastics, recently announced that it would ban non-recyclables other than degradable bioplastics by 2025 (ref.244). As a result, Chinese manufacturers plan to dramatically increase PLA production to 700,000 tonnes per year and combined PBAT and PBS output to 1.24 million tonnes per year by 2023 (ref.245). These capacities may affect global market prices for these polymers, and plans for controlled disposal of these increased volumes remain unclear. Several other countries, including Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, have created financial subsidies for bioplastics246. In the USA, the current administration has committed to more environment-focused and climate-focused policies. Their goals include catalysing private sector investment into domestic clean energy technologies and materials and addressing ocean plastics247,248. The Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in February 2020. This bill aims to limit single-use items and non-recyclables in markets after 2022 by establishing a tax on carry-out bags and making plastic producers fiscally responsible for collecting and recycling their products following EPR principles. The bill also prevents the export of plastic waste to non-OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries249. These efforts, however, are at odds with policies that have promoted fossil-derived plastic production. Financial incentives and lack of regulations have enabled fracking and shale gas in the USA, making plastic based on these fossil feedstocks cheap and competitive with renewable materials250,251. The International Monetary Fund estimates that 85% of global subsidies benefit fossil fuels, despite estimates that incentives for sustainable technologies could save 28% of carbon emissions, curb air-pollution-related deaths by 46% and increase governmental revenues by 3.8% of the gross domestic product252,253. ## Conclusions and future perspectives Use of renewable resources alone does not imply sustainability. Sustainability is highly dependent on how a material is made, where it is used and how it can be recycled, and less so on the building blocks of a material. Nevertheless, with technological advances, bioplastics have the potential to move several plastic-intensive industries towards a circular economy. Bio-based replacements are available for almost every fossil-based application; however, these are mostly in small and costly quantities, and do not always have substantial environmental benefits. Besides first-generation biomass, lignocellulosic agricultural and other biowastes present a renewable, abundant and more ethically viable feedstock. However, biorefinery processes have to increase in efficiency and adhere to green chemistry principles (such as using non-toxic chemicals and reducing the energy demand) to supply polymer building blocks in a cost-competitive and sustainable manner. Gene editing is a promising tool to increase microorganism efficiencies in biomass utilization, bioplastic polymerization (especially for PHAs) and biological depolymerization for recycling. Although many modern bioplastics are degradable polymers, bio-based and thermolysis-oil-based versions of durable polyolefins (for example, bioPE and chemically recycled PE) and polyesters (such as PEF and bioPET) can also be sustainable and recyclable by exploiting established and highly efficient, solvent-free and water-free catalytic processes. The ability to evaluate, scrutinize and compare sustainability and the environmental impact of fossil-based and bio-based materials remains essential, yet non-trivial. LCA is the main tool but requires homogenization of methodology standards to make LCAs more transparent, consistent and comparable. Existing bioplastic labels need to be revised for application on both global and local scales — they must convey widely recognized appropriate standards and still identify the EOL of plastics in the local market. Together, reliable LCAs and clearer product labelling will help avoid ‘greenwashing’, help to identify ‘sustainability bottlenecks’ along supply chains, improve public education on bioplastics and help guide investment in promising sustainable technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that there is an urgent requirement for methods that can recycle increasing amounts of mixed waste streams of potentially poor quality, containing contaminants from the medical, food and other sectors. Innovation and financial incentivization in advanced recycling technologies, such as chemical and biological recycling, would further unlock (bio)plastic circularity. With improvements in efficiency and cost-competitiveness, these techniques can enable the upcycling of plastic waste. For any recycling technology, including existing mechanical recycling capacities, plastic products must be designed to be recyclable, such as through the use of monomaterials rather than non-recyclable multilayers. The superior properties of some bioplastics could aid this process. EPR schemes can incentivize design-for-recycling but require clearer definitions regarding local and chemical recyclability. Robust sorting technology that separates bioplastics from existing plastics is another key to circularity. Deposit-refund systems have proved effective in EU countries to increase recollection rates and afford pure recycling streams. Biodegradation is no ‘silver bullet’ to curb plastic pollution and typically ranks as the least desired fate of bioplastics, especially in anaerobic landfill scenarios without gas capture. Industrial anaerobic digestion offers a potential route for CH4 and energy recovery. True and fast biodegradation without the release of toxic chemicals may prove useful in settings in which there are no other forms of recycling, but more research on the impact of microplastics as intermediates is required. Besides recycling, behavioural changes towards using less plastic, and the strict usage of renewable energy for polymer and plastic production, remain essential strategies to mitigate plastic waste and carbon emissions. Environmental sustainability has yet to be met with financial sustainability. Low oil prices, narrow profit margins and existing fossil-fuel subsidies reduce the cost-competitiveness of bio-based manufacturers, which represent a fragmented market of small entities and subdivisions of petrochemical companies. Drop-in bioplastics processed on standard equipment (such as bioPE) and cost-competitive ones (such as PLA blends and cellulose) will likely see the lowest barriers to adoption in existing markets. Some firms rely on selling products with higher margins, as in the medical or nutrition areas, to yield the profits needed to scale-up bioplastic production. For some popular bioplastics based on PLA and PHA, however, demand currently exceeds the supply as an increasing number of stakeholders in the food industry seek to use these materials in their packaging, albeit often without clear recycling options in mind. 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## Acknowledgements

The authors thank R. Mülhaupt, E. Olivetti, G. Storti, G. W. Liu, S. Srinivasan, A. Kirtane and A. Lopes for discussions related to this body of work. The authors have been supported in part by the following funding sources: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (INV-002177, INV-009529), Karl Van Tassel (1925) Career Development Chair and the Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT.

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All authors are co-inventors on multiple patents or patent applications describing bio-based or biodegradable materials. Complete details for R.L. can be found at the following link: https://www.dropbox.com/s/yc3xqb5s8s94v7x/Rev%20Langer%20COI.pdf?dl=0. Complete details of all relationships for profit and not for profit for G.T. can be found at the following link. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/szi7vnr4a2ajb56/AABs5N5i0q9AfT1IqIJAE-T5a?dl=0.

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Rosenboom, JG., Langer, R. & Traverso, G. Bioplastics for a circular economy. Nat Rev Mater 7, 117–137 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41578-021-00407-8

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