Marine-Based Plastic Could Be Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry

INL Clean Room
INL Clean Room

Published Dec 17, 2019 5:15 PM by The Maritime Executive

Technological advances involving algae, crabs and prawns could spark a multi-billion dollar industry for the production of biodegradable biopolymers for plastic making, according to a new E.U. study.

Project coordinator Ana Vila from the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL) said the global bioplastics and biopolymers market is projected to surpass $5 billion by 2021.

A number of companies are already putting the technology into practice including Netherlands firm Studio Klarenbeek & Dros working alongside Atelier Luma in France to develop algae-based biopolymers to compete with traditional plastics. The material can be applied on an industrial scale and processed like traditional plastic. It has proven to be suitable for injection moulding with 3D printing processes. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, Algamoil and Teregroup are also working on the development of 100 percent biodegradable plastic made with algae in the form of filaments.

The most important bio-based biodegradable biopolymers are PHAs (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) and PLAs (Polylactic acid). PHA polymers are thermoplastic and can be transformed by means of injection-moulding to produce films and sheet, fibres, laminates, nonwoven fabrics and adhesives. PLA is also a thermoplastic polymer that can replace traditional polymers such as PET, PS, and PC for packaging applications.

Other naturally occurring biopolymers present in marine biomass includes chitin and chitosan. Both can be produced through a chemical extraction processes involving crabs, shrimp and prawn wastes.

Chitosan is biodegradable, biocompatible, antimicrobial, non-toxic, chemically inert, has high mechanical strength and good film-forming properties. These features make this polymer suitable for a wide variety of applications including waste-water treatment, agricultural materials, food and feed additives, biomedical and pharmaceutical materials, wound-healing materials, blood anticoagulant, antithrombogenic and haemostatic materials, cosmetic ingredients, textile, paper, film and sponge sheet materials, as well as analytical reagents.

The global chitin market is expected to reach $2.9 billion by 2027. The healthcare segment is projected to grow at the highest rate, with waste and water treatment applications offering significant growth opportunities.

Chitin films have proven to be very effective in food preservation. They can be used as active packaging material for the quality preservation of a variety of food or as antimicrobial films to provide edible protective coatings. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have recently developed a material from cellulose nanocrystals and chitin nanofibers. The resulting material shows up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability compared to some forms of polyethylene (PET), which is one of the most common plastics employed in food packaging, improving food preservation.

While the bio-based plastics sector is developing rapidly it remains expensive in comparison to conventional fossil plastics. The price is mainly driven by the cost of feedstocks and processing steps. 

The newly published study on marine industrial biotechnology is part of the €1 million KETmaritime project, funded by the Interreg Atlantic Area Program, via the European Regional Development Fund. The study was led by Spanish technology center IDONIAL in collaboration with Marine South East in the U.K. and the INL in Portugal.