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Does bioplastic compete with food?

Biobased plastics are produced from plants. These require land for cultivation. At the same time, a growing world population wants to be supplied with food. Are these land requirements in competition with each other? That's what this article is about!

Content

The Basics

Kunststoffe

The most widely used bioplastics are made from starch- and sugar-containing crops such as potatoes, corn and wheat, as well as sugar beet and sugar cane. In addition, there are some bioplastics made from oilseeds, made from the oil of castor bean, linseed or soybean.

Farmland is needed to grow all these plants. That's why many people are concerned that the production of bioplastics competes with our food production. To find out whether this concern is justified, we go into detail in the next section.

Deep Dive 

Let's take a closer look at the demand for land: Globally, there is 13.4 billion hectares of land available. In the diagram on the right , this corresponds to the green circle. Currently, a good third of this, 5 billion hectares, is used for agriculture. The area used for agriculture is further subdivided. Two-thirds is pasture, one-third is cropland. Globally, cropland accounts for about 1.4 billion hectares, or about 10% of the available land area. For those who like it visually: In the chart, the gray circle represents this share.

Arable land is used for a variety of purposes: The majority, almost 90%, is used for food and animal feed production. But industrial raw materials are also grown, for example cotton for clothing and absorbent cotton, energy plants for fuel production or medicinal plants for use in natural cosmetics and medicines. And: plants for our bioplastics! However, only 0.5 million hectares are needed for this today. That is 0.004% of the global land area or 0.01% of the area used for agriculture. In the diagram, this is the barely recognizable pink circle.

Flächenbedarf zur Herstellung von Biokunststoff
Area demand of bioplastics

The area of land used for agriculture worldwide, on the other hand, is roughly equivalent to the land area of the two continents of Asia and Australia combined. Figuratively speaking, this is as much as a paper napkin on a soccer field.

The numbers are clear: in comparison, land use for bioplastics is insignificant.

Ein Gute Frage für BIOVOX
Just for comparison - What other "area issues" are there?

Worldwide, we throw away about one-third of our food. The land farmed for discarded food could be put to better use: Research shows that just 10% of it would be enough to convert all petroleum-based plastics to bio-based. (Source: IfBB)

Another much-discussed topic is our meat consumption. Three-quarters of all agricultural land is needed for pasture and the cultivation of feed (e.g. soy and feed corn). Even a slight reduction in meat consumption would remedy this situation and reduce this enormous land requirement by 18%. While pasture land often cannot be converted to cropland due to natural conditions, 90% of feed is produced on cropland, so there is enormous potential here as well. (Source: WWF)

So there is still a lot of potential to use existing agricultural land more efficiently. Even a small part of it would be enough to cover the global demand for bio-based plastics. We can use this potential to ensure healthy nutrition for the entire world population as well as sufficient raw materials for the bioeconomy.

And what does the future hold?

There is currently a lot of movement in bioeconomy research. It is investigating the transformation away from a petroleum-based economy toward renewable raw materials. And there is a good reason for this: food production produces many non-edible residues. Straw from cereals, bagasse from sugar production or pomace from pressing fruit juice. Some of it is used as animal feed or bedding, for example. Overall, however, there are still many times more residual materials than can find a second use. By using residual materials, a new source of raw materials can be tapped. In this way, we can ensure that there will still be enough for everyone in the future: food, clothing and bio-based products.

We at BIOVOX are also part of a research alliance. Here we are dedicated to the production of biopolymers from dough residues and straw (https://w2v-rlp.de/). We already use regional food and agricultural production residues in our Regiogradable® bioplastics.

Worldwide, we throw away about one-third of our food. The land farmed for discarded food could be put to better use: Research shows that just 10% of it would be enough to convert all petroleum-based plastics to bio-based. (Source: IfBB)

Another much-discussed topic is our meat consumption. Three-quarters of all agricultural land is needed for pasture and the cultivation of feed (e.g. soy and feed corn). Even a slight reduction in meat consumption would remedy this situation and reduce this enormous land requirement by 18%. While pasture land often cannot be converted to cropland due to natural conditions, 90% of feed is produced on cropland, so there is enormous potential here as well. (Source: WWF)

So there is still a lot of potential to use existing agricultural land more efficiently. Even a small part of it would be enough to cover the global demand for bio-based plastics. We can use this potential to ensure healthy nutrition for the entire world population as well as sufficient raw materials for the bioeconomy.

And what does the future hold?

There is currently a lot of movement in bioeconomy research. It is investigating the transformation away from a petroleum-based economy toward renewable raw materials. And there is a good reason for this: food production produces many non-edible residues. Straw from cereals, bagasse from sugar production or pomace from pressing fruit juice. Some of it is used as animal feed or bedding, for example. Overall, however, there are still many times more residual materials than can find a second use. By using residual materials, a new source of raw materials can be tapped. In this way, we can ensure that there will still be enough for everyone in the future: food, clothing and bio-based products.

Herstellung von Biokunststoffen aus nachwachsenden Rohstoffen

We at BIOVOX are also part of a research alliance. Here we are dedicated to the production of biopolymers from dough residues and straw (https://w2v-rlp.de/). We already use regional food and agricultural production residues in our Regiogradable® bioplastics.

In a Nutshell 

BIOVOX Megaphon

Land is needed for the production of bio-based plastics. In a global comparison, however, only a negligible proportion is used for this purpose. So no - bioplastics and food are not in competition. The all-dominant driver for a high demand for land is the waste of food.

In addition, approaches are being researched to obtain biopolymers from agricultural residues; BIOVOX is also working on this. In this way, the yield of already cultivated land is used more efficiently and no further land needs to be developed. Our Regiogradable plastics are already based on precisely this approach.

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