Can banning plastic benefit the bioplastic industry? The case of plastic bags and French legislation.
The European directive 2015/720 of the 29th of April 2015 induced Member states of the European Union to take restrictive actions against plastic bags. It proposes either to reduce the annual bag consumption per inhabitant to 90 bag, or to prohibit the free provision of bags at points of sales, or goods. The text refers to:
- Lightweight plastic carrier bags under 50 microns
- Very lightweight plastic carrier bags under 15 microns, which can be excluded from restrictive dispositions for specific reasons, such as hygiene.
- “Oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags” which are considered as “plastic carrier bags made of plastic materials that include additives which catalyse the fragmentation of the plastic material into micro-fragments”
A directive is a European text defining objectives to member states, while letting them free of choosing how to reach them. Therefore, France adopted a law on energy transition n°2015-992 on the 17th of August 2015, completed by a decree n°2016-379 from the 30th of March 2016.
Thus, from the the 1st of July 2016, lightweight plastic carrier bags (under 50µm) are prohibited whether they are free or not, and even if they are biodegradable. However bags over 50µm have to be bio-based (or composed of another component than plastic) which extends the market for bioplastics and particularly PLA. Besides, manufacturing, sales or provision of plastic bags made of oxo-degradable component is forbidden.
From the 1st of January 2017, those dispositions will be extended to all plastic bags including for fresh products (fish, fruits..), and on 2020 disposable tableware will be banned, unless if they fit the above-mentioned criteria.
Bioplastics, PLA, oxodegradable bioplastics
Let’s notice that there are two kinds of bioplastics : Biobased and biodegradable plastics.
A biobased plastic is composed from renewable ressources.
A biodegradable plastic is not necessarily made of renewable ressources, but it degradates thanks to live organism - such as bacteria- into basic components non dangerous for the environment.
A biodegradable plastic is different than an oxo-degradable plastic. The common element is that they degradate, however oxo-degradable products turn into basic components dangerous for the environment.
A biodegradable plastic is not necessarily biobased, and a biobased plastic is not necessary degradable. However, PLA is both biobased and biodegradable and concerned by this legislation.
Figure 1. Classification of plastics.
Impact on Prices
The French bioplastic market of plastic bags will more than likely benefit from the new legislation, as long as consumers replicate their consumptions patterns with petroleum-based bags on bioplastic bags. Surely, good marketing of bioplastic alternatives play a key role in a successful replication. However, the consumer could be reluctant to integrate bioplastics on his consumption patterns if the price of his product is different than what he is used to.
Is there a big price difference between bioplastics and petroleum-based products?
Difference of prices between bioplastic and petroleum-based plastics is a serious brake for the development of bioplastics.
We first asked some questions on our topic to Sandra Guillaumot the Head of Cabinet of the deputy mayor for sustainable development at the Paris City Council.
According to her, the law could help reducing prices because of the opening created in the market. Demand in bioplastic would arise, potentially leading to a decrease in prices.
However, she admitted that it will take time for consumers to resort to bioplastic materials despite a growing environmental awareness. Indeed, a survey of July conducted by the European Union on “Attitudes of europeans towards building the single market for green products” showed that 80 % of consumers want to buy products which have a minimal impact on the environment. 
The survey we conceived related to PLA and bioplastics confirmed this trend since 96% of interrogated people said that they felt concerned by environmental issues, while 84.3% are trying to reduce their plastic consumptions.
To better understand the consumer situation, we compared prices between a bioplastic company and an average supermarket for the same product.
Bioplastic garbage bags, 50 Litres – Biofutura website. Price of 11,85€ for 32 items.
Biodegradable plastic bag, 0,3703125 € per unit (11.85/ 32)
Polyethylene garbage bag, 50 Litres – Price from a French average market brand. Price of 2,86€ for 15 items.
No-biodegradable plastic, 0.19066667 € per unit (2,86/15)
Thus the PLA-based bag is twice more expensive than its petroleum-based equivalent which is a big difference for the consumer.
Secondly, as we were looking for another point of view on the topic, we contacted Biofutura which is an importer, wholesaler and online shop of sustainable products.
Biofutura justified those high prices by a low demand compared to other markets and a need to amortise production costs. Without speculating on future market trends, they were optimistic on a potential decrease of prices for consumers. However, they specified that the price decline would probably not happen right after the 1st of January 2017.
A “first-generation of new consumers” would need to pay the current price of the products to affect the market, before a substantial decrease of the price.
Why would bioplastic companies lower their prices if the competing product disappears from the market due to legislation ?
We asked Biofutura why they wouldn’t limit the offer of their products to maintain a high price for consumers in a context of increase of the demand. They responded that it would mainly depend on the competition.
Indeed, banning plastic would result in an increase of the demand from the consumer, as well as an increase of stakeholders in the market because of the new opportunities created. Therefore, those legislations would enable a democratization of sustainable products, in favour of a stabilisation of the product.
A look on regions where bans on plastics are implemented
Legislation on petroleum-based plastic bags in Eastern and Western Africa region has been toughened in the last few years. An article from “Jeune Afrique” from the 24th of April illustrates this trend through an interesting interactive map.
Figure 2.Map of Western Africa region with banning of plastics.
We contacted Olivier Kerfant from Artaxerkes, a bioplastic firm operating in Africa and Europe, in collaboration with the NGO H2O Gabon. We asked him if the bans against petroleum-based plastic improved sales of his bioplastic products but the answer was negative. Indeed, oxo-degradable products are labelled as “biodegradable products” leading to confusions, especially since they are cheaper than non-oxo-degradable products.
According to them it is only when the distinction will be clearly made between bioplastics and oxo-degradable plastic that the demand concerning bioplastics will be effective. Yet, since European legislative text make the distinction, he is rather optimistic concerning potential increase of bioplastic demand.
Previsions and productions upgrades
PlasticsEurope, considered that bioplastics only represented less than 1% of the world production of bioplastics (300 Millions tons).
Following the release of their new report entitled “Global Markets and Technologies for Bioplastics” Research and Markets announced that The global bioplastic market amounted to 1.6 million metric tons in 2015 and should go up to nearly 6.1 million metric tons in 2020 , which is a big increase. 
Besides, according to European Bioplastics, the development of more efficient production processes will lead to costs reductions through economies of scales . If the production of a bioplastic increases for the same investment, the average cost of production will decrease and impact the price for the consumer.
Following this theory, we worked on more efficient ways to produce PLA, and that is why we developed our own DIY bioreactor. Check out Improvements to learn more about it.
- Directive (EU) 2015/720 of the European Parliament and of the Council. Retrieved from: http://eur-lex.europa.eu.
- Attitudes of Europeans Towards Building the Single Market for Green Products. Retrieved from: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion.
- Prolifération des sacs plastiques en Afrique de l’Ouest : faut-il les interdire? Retrieved from: http://www.jeuneafrique.com.
- Global Bioplastics Markets and Technologies Report 2016-2020. Retrieved from: https://globenewswire.com.
- European Bioplastics, Frequently Asked Questions, Mars 2016. Retrieved from: www.european-bioplastics.org.