Bio-plastics in the context of competing demands on agricultural land in 2050

Recent trends in the bio-plastics industry indicate a rapid shift towards the use of bio-derived conventional plastics such as polyethylene (bio-PE). Whereas historically a significant driver for bio-plastics development has been their biodegradability, the adoption of plastics such as bio-PE is driven by the renewability of the raw materials from which they are produced. The production of these renewable resources requires the use of agricultural land, which is limited in its availability. Land is also an essential requirement for food production and is becoming increasingly important for fuel production. The research presented in this paper envisages a situation, in the year 2050, where all plastics and liquid fuels are produced from renewable resources. Through the development of different consumption and productivity scenarios, projected using current and historic data, the feasibility of meeting global demands for food, liquid fuels and plastics is investigated, based on total agricultural land availability. A range of results, comparing low-to-high consumption with low-to-high productivity, are reported. However, it is from the analysis of the mid-point scenario combinations, where consumption and productivity are both moderate, that the most significant conclusions can be drawn. It is clear that while bio-plastics offer attractive opportunities for the use of renewable materials, development activities to 2050 should continue to focus on the search for alternative feed stocks that do not compete with food production, and should prioritise the efficient use of materials through good design and effective end-of-life management. © 2012 Copyright Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.