Our View on Bio-Plastics


Bio-plastics are a rather new member of the plastics family and comprise two types of plastics. These are:

  • biodegradable plastics, which will break down at the end of their life; and
  • bio-based plastics, which are made from a renewable raw material source.

Bio-based plastics are not necessarily biodegradable and biodegradable plastics are not necessarily bio-based. However, both biodegradable and non-biodegradable plastics should be properly disposed of and must not end up as litter in the environment.

In a Circular Economy there are many ways to create economic value without increasing the amount of finite resources we use in the process (see Our View on the Circular Economy for more on this topic). In the New Plastics Economy model, proposed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Circular Economy ensures that plastics are either reused or recycled at the end of their useful life, preventing the leakage of plastics into the environment and enabling the production of plastics without fossil fuel feedstock. Bio-based plastics made from renewable raw materials will enable the plastics economy to be decoupled from fossil fuel feedstock.

Growth in the bio-plastics sector is driven by several factors. These include supportive national and international policies, the increasing availability of organic waste and certain renewable feedstock, ongoing research and development, technological advances, desire from the industry’s big players to offer more sustainable products and consumers getting more aware and conscious in their choices.

The sector also faces some challenges. These include feedstock availability and the fact that several types of renewable feedstock either compete with crops for food or feed production or encourage deforestation to create new farmland. Other challenges include the higher cost of bio-plastics compared with cheap fossil-based materials, the need to collect and separate organic waste streams, competition with bio-fuels, and the complexity of communicating how bio-plastics benefit both society and the environment.

Biodegradable plastics, are ideal for certain applications, such as bags that enable the separate collection of organic waste for composting, but it is important, as with every other plastic, that they do not contaminate well-established PET, polypropylene and polyethylene recycling streams.

Our View

We have no intention of developing biodegradable plastics as we believe recycling as an end-of-life option is better sustaining the value in the plastic and we do not want to risk the littering of plastics due to biodegradable claims. For these reasons it is not fitting our current portfolio offerings.

Producing bio-based plastics from renewable feedstock, on the other hand, is a real opportunity for us to reduce the carbon footprint of our products and decouple plastic production from fossil-based feedstock. There is significant interest in bio-based plastics from major industries such as the consumer products industry and substantial growth is therefore expected. Replacing fossil-based plastics with bio-based plastics is also integral to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. As we are a partner of the Foundation we support the transformation of the industry to the Circular Economy.

A truly sustainable bio-based renewable feedstock is needed

The climate impact of bio-based plastics is generally better than for fossil-based plastics. Nevertheless, the use of renewable feedstock should not cause negative environmental effects in other areas.

The use of first generation renewable feedstock produced with agricultural crops grown for food and livestock feed, opposed to second generation renewable feedstock, can raise fundamental issues. For example, the use of land and consumption of water in their production can cause competition with the food and feed value chain, potentially increasing food prices at a time when the world population continues to grow.

Borealis has launched its Bornewables™ portfolio of circular polyolefin products, manufactured with second generation renewable feedstock. Unlike first generation renewable feedstock, Bornewables are made of renewably-sourced feedstock derived solely from waste and residue streams: from vegetable oil production; from the paper and pulp industry; or for instance, used cooking oil.

In the future, we may consider using first-generation renewable feedstock that the European Commission considers sustainable for biofuel, such as soya beans. Also, third-generation renewable feedstock produced from seaweed, algae or direct capture of carbon dioxide are followed closely as a future feedstock of choice.

Fossil-based feedstock is currently the most available

Plastics contribute significantly to the progress of society worldwide and will continue to do so in years to come. Plastics are a very sustainable material choice for many applications, compared to alternative materials.

Nowadays about 8 % of the world's fossil fuel consumption is used to produce plastics and this is expected to increase to 20% over the coming decades when the energy and fuels sector is decarbonizing and reducing its use of fossil-based feedstock.

While total decarbonisation is not possible for the chemicals and plastics industry, decoupling from fossil feedstock is. The use of renewable feedstock is one of those options.

Although fossil-based feedstocks will continue to be a mainstay of international Borealis polyolefins production operations, significant strides have been made towards the use of more sustainable feedstocks in large-scale commercial manufacture. In March 2020, for example, Borealis began producing polypropylene based on renewably-sourced feedstocks, such as Neste-produced renewable propane, at its Belgian facilities in Kallo and Beringen.

Plastic production also improves the sustainability of the oil and gas industry. Fossil-based gases such as ethane and naphtha, which are used to manufacture plastics, are a by-product from oil and gas production and would otherwise be burned to generate energy or even be disposed of through flaring, harming the environment.

Nevertheless, it is a business imperative to de-fossilise the energy used in the chemical industry (see Our View on Energy and Climate) through improved energy efficiency, electrification of processes and increased renewable energy.


Got a question?

Get in touch