Plant-Based Plastics Gain Favour as Companies Pursue Sustainability Goals
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Plant-Based Plastics Gain Favour as Companies Pursue Sustainability Goals

Bioplastic production is growing at a record clip amid strong demand from fashion and food-packaging companies, in particular

By DIETER HOLGER
Mon, Aug 21, 2023 9:17amGrey Clock 4 min

The future is more plastic. Plant-based plastic, that is.

Plant-based plastics, or bioplastics, have accounted for just 1% of the world’s plastic production for well over a decade, according to a review of more than 100 companies by research organisation nova-Institute. Bioplastics haven’t taken off largely because they are typically 50% to 80% more expensive than traditional fossil-fuel-based plastics, but their production is now growing 14% a year, putting them on track to reach up to 3% of the plastics market in the next five years.

Bioplastics are expanding faster than recycled plastic in some cases, such as in Asian countries like China and Japan that are mandating more ecologically friendly materials, nova-Institute founder Michael Carus said. Even if global plastic recycling rates someday reach 70% compared with around 9% today, bioplastics alongside materials made from captured carbon dioxide will have a big role to play asthe world transitions away from fossil-fuel-based materials, he said.

“Not one of them can do it alone,” Carus said, referring to the sustainable materials that will drive the green transition.

Bioplastics’ benefits

Bioplastics are usually derived from plants rich in starch, sugar or pulp, such as corn, wheat, sugar cane, wood and cotton, which makes them costlier than plastics made from fossil fuels because crops need fertiliser and other resources such as water. However, the environmental benefits of plant-based plastics are increasingly appealing to companies promising to use more sustainable materials by the end of the decade.

Plants absorb the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, which cuts the greenhouse-gas emissions from making bioplastics to at least half that of fossil-fuel-based plastics. Bioplastics can also sometimes cause less pollution when they degrade in the environment.

Broadly, there are two types of bioplastics: Materials that have similar performance to plastic, such as pulp-derived cellulose acetate found in eyeglasses and textiles, and bioplastics that are chemically identical to conventional plastics, such as a polyethylene, polyester and nylon. Around half of today’s bioplastics are biodegradable, according to nova-Institute, meaning they break down more naturally and are less harmful to habitats. Still, many of these bioplastics require industrial composting facilities to degrade and aren’t designed to be thrown away in a home garden.

Some of the earliest adopters of bioplastics are fashion companies, including Lululemon, which has a goal to replace the majority of oil-based nylon with plant-based nylon by 2030. A big selling point for the sportswear company is using plants to make chemically identical nylon that can be easily switched in, but still cuts emissions by nearly half.

The strongest demand for bioplastics is currently from fashion and food-packaging companies, but interest is also rising from companies in cosmetics, electronics and more durable goods such as tools, Eastman Chemical’s Chief Technology Officer Chris Killian said.

Eastman, formerly a division of Kodak, earns more than $1 billion of its $10 billion or so in yearly sales from bioplastics made from cellulose acetate, a material it has produced for more than 70 years. Cellulose acetate, which Eastman makes from cotton linters and wood pulp, was first used in Kodak film in the company’s early days, but it is now expanding into packaging, textiles and other applications. In 2022, Eastman signed an agreement with Warby Parker for the material to be used in eyewear.

“It has a great deal of legs,” he said of the cellulose acetate-derived plastics.

Challenges ahead

Plant-based plastics remain a tough sell because fossil-fuel-based plastics are much cheaper, but prices could fall if companies continue to buy more bioplastics and governments encourage their use. This year, the Biden administration called on the federal government to assess the potential for biomaterials, including for plastics, fuels and medicines. And last year, the U.S. Defense Department said it would invest $1.2 billion in bio manufacturing. The European Union is also considering mandating bioplastics under packaging rules that are being discussed.

In the U.S., there is government support at the state and federal level to convert biological raw materials into fuels such as ethanol, but that level of support doesn’t yet exist for plant-based plastics, said Manav Lahoti, chemical giant Dow’s global sustainability director, olefins, aromatics and alternatives.

“The market is ready to take off on the demand side,” he said. “But to make the economics work, there is some regulatory support that is required.”

Another hurdle to scaling up bioplastics is what happens at their end of life. Only plant-based plastics that are chemically identical to fossil-fuelbased versions can enter the existing and growing recycling infrastructure. The world’s limited amount of feedstock, which often goes to feeding cattle and other livestock, also presents challenges to using more bioplastics.

One answer: turning agricultural waste into recyclable plastics.

This year, Dow struck an agreement with biomass refinery startup New Energy Blue to buy bioethylene made from the stalks and leaves of corn grown in Iowa. Dow will then make conventional and recyclable plastics from the material and sell to companies in transportation, footwear, and packaging.

Dow is already providing bioplastics for Crocs shoes and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s perfume packaging, and sees demand outstripping supply, said Haley Lowry, Dow’s global sustainability director for packaging and specialty plastics.

“We are trying to find more sources,” she said. “The demand from our customers is there; it’s really finding the sources of biofeed that makes sense.”



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Why Prices of the World’s Most Expensive Handbags Keep Rising

Designers are charging more for their most recognisable bags to maintain the appearance of exclusivity as the industry balloons

By CAROL RYAN
Tue, Mar 5, 2024 3 min

The price of a basic Hermès Birkin handbag has jumped $1,000. This first-world problem for fashionistas is a sign that luxury brands are playing harder to get with their most sought-after products.

Hermès recently raised the cost of a basic Birkin 25-centimeter handbag in its U.S. stores by 10% to $11,400 before sales tax, according to data from luxury handbag forum PurseBop. Rarer Birkins made with exotic skins such as crocodile have jumped more than 20%. The Paris brand says it only increases prices to offset higher manufacturing costs, but this year’s increase is its largest in at least a decade.

The brand may feel under pressure to defend its reputation as the maker of the world’s most expensive handbags. The “Birkin premium”—the price difference between the Hermès bag and its closest competitor , the Chanel Classic Flap in medium—shrank from 70% in 2019 to 2% last year, according to PurseBop founder Monika Arora. Privately owned Chanel has jacked up the price of its most popular handbag by 75% since before the pandemic.

Eye-watering price increases on luxury brands’ benchmark products are a wider trend. Prada ’s Galleria bag will set shoppers back a cool $4,600—85% more than in 2019, according to the Wayback Machine internet archive. Christian Dior ’s Lady Dior bag and the Louis Vuitton Neverfull are both 45% more expensive, PurseBop data show.

With the U.S. consumer-price index up a fifth since 2019, luxury brands do need to offset higher wage and materials costs. But the inflation-beating increases are also a way to manage the challenge presented by their own success: how to maintain an aura of exclusivity at the same time as strong sales.

Luxury brands have grown enormously in recent years, helped by the Covid-19 lockdowns, when consumers had fewer outlets for spending. LVMH ’s fashion and leather goods division alone has almost doubled in size since 2019, with €42.2 billion in sales last year, equivalent to $45.8 billion at current exchange rates. Gucci, Chanel and Hermès all make more than $10 billion in sales a year. One way to avoid overexposure is to sell fewer items at much higher prices.

Many aspirational shoppers can no longer afford the handbags, but luxury brands can’t risk alienating them altogether. This may explain why labels such as Hermès and Prada have launched makeup lines and Gucci’s owner Kering is pushing deeper into eyewear. These cheaper categories can be a kind of consolation prize. They can also be sold in the tens of millions without saturating the market.

“Cosmetics are invisible—unless you catch someone applying lipstick and see the logo, you can’t tell the brand,” says Luca Solca, luxury analyst at Bernstein.

Most of the luxury industry’s growth in 2024 will come from price increases. Sales are expected to rise by 7% this year, according to Bernstein estimates, even as brands only sell 1% to 2% more stuff.

Limiting volume growth this way only works if a brand is so popular that shoppers won’t balk at climbing prices and defect to another label. Some companies may have pushed prices beyond what consumers think they are worth. Sales of Prada’s handbags rose a meagre 1% in its last quarter and the group’s cheaper sister label Miu Miu is growing faster.

Ramping up prices can invite unflattering comparisons. At more than $2,000, Burberry ’s small Lola bag is around 40% more expensive today than it was a few years ago. Luxury shoppers may decide that tried and tested styles such as Louis Vuitton’s Neverfull bag, which is now a little cheaper than the Burberry bag, are a better buy—especially as Louis Vuitton bags hold their value better in the resale market.

Aggressive price increases can also drive shoppers to secondhand websites. If a barely used Prada Galleria bag in excellent condition can be picked up for $1,500 on luxury resale website The Real Real, it is less appealing to pay three times that amount for the bag brand new.

The strategy won’t help everyone, but for the best luxury brands, stretching the price spectrum can keep the risks of growth in check.

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