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Bye-bye single-use plastic! With the bioplastic PLA to more sustainability and healthier oceans

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our oceans today. Every year, more than ten million tons of plastic end up in the world's oceans. The trash costs the lives of thousands of marine animals, endangers our health, and upsets our most important natural CO2 reservoirs. With the bioplastic PLA, thyssenkrupp is creating a sustainable alternative that is not only ecologically but also economically attractive.

Climate crisis and plastic waste: what sounds at first glance like two independent environmental problems are inextricably linked. As the largest natural CO2 reservoirs on earth, our oceans are the stabilizing force of our climate system and essential in the fight against global warming. They cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface, absorb 20 to 30 percent of our greenhouse gases and produce 50 percent of the world's oxygen. In short, every second breath we take comes from the sea - without our oceans, our life today would be unimaginable. But the complex ecosystem is increasingly out of balance.   

Ten Thousand Tons - Just the Tip of the Garbage Mountain

Every year, plastic waste costs the lives of around 135,000 marine mammals. However, the huge mountains of waste are only the tip of the iceberg. In salt water, petroleum-based plastic decomposes into tiny particles and dangerous substances that later end up on our plates.

Put an end to single-use plastic! But it's not just the disposal of single-use plastic that is difficult; its production also causes huge amounts of CO2. That's why a ban on the sale of items made from petroleum-based single-use plastic has been in effect in the EU since July 3, 2021. This includes products such as straws, coffee-to-go cups, and plastic cutlery and tableware.

The plastic bag in the supermarket is practical, but the CO2 balance of the petroleum-based material endangers the climate and oceans.

So in the future, we will have to resort to green alternatives for the barbecue. The market for wood, bamboo and the bioplastic PLA is growing. With a new technology thyssenkrupp is now making the production of the green plastic alternative economically attractive.

The green solution: PLA bioplastic

The plastic bag is quickly replaced with the jute bag. But there is also a promising way for food packaging to reduce the consumption of fossil raw materials and protect our oceans: Green plastic made from renewable raw materials.

One of the most attractive representatives of these bio-polymers is polylactide, or PLA for short. PLA not only consists of 100 percent biodegradable materials - thanks to its physical and mechanical properties, it can replace conventional, petroleum-based polymers in many areas. And thus sustainably improve the global carbon footprint. The starting material for PLA production is lactic acid, which is obtained from renewable raw materials such as sugar, starch or cellulose.

Versatile, compostable and virtually CO2-neutral - these are the advantages of the bioplastic polylactide, or PLA for short.

The advantage: PLA does not compete with food production - on the contrary, explains Udo Mühlbauer of thyssenkrupp, who is an expert on the bioplastic. "For one thing, the land required for growing the necessary raw materials is extremely small. For another, we can reuse waste from the food industry to produce PLA."

Despite green trends and new EU directives, however, the economic breakthrough for PLA is not easy. "Bioplastics like polylactides are going up against the established plastics market," Mühlbauer said. "Petroleum-based polymers are produced in huge plants and can thus be manufactured much more cheaply. The market for bioplastics is very small in comparison, making the products more expensive."

PLAneo®: thyssenkrupp makes polylactide a real alternative

thyssenkrupp has tackled these challenges - and in recent years has developed its own manufacturing process for the bioplastic. In Changchun, China, the experts are using their patented technology called PLAneo® for the first time in a commercial plant for Jilin COFCO Biomaterial Corporation, a subsidiary of China's largest food and beverage group.

To improve the process for producing the bioplastic, thyssenkrupp conducted research for several years at a pilot plant in Guben in Lower Lusatia. The result: PLAneo® technology.

The major advantage of PLAneo® is that the technology makes it possible to produce the bioplastic particularly efficiently and in a way that conserves resources - and at a price that can compete with conventional plastic. In developing it, thyssenkrupp benefited from decades of know-how gained from building over 400 plastics plants worldwide.

"PLAneo® is also suitable for large-scale plants with capacities of up to 100,000 tons per year. This reduces production costs decisively," says Udo Mühlbauer, who is closely supervising the Chinese plant. "We have also reduced the energy consumption of the process by means of an energy recovery system. In this way, we further reduce costs and make production more sustainable at the same time."

PLA is ready for almost all areas of application

PLA can be used in a highly flexible manner and does not have to hide from petroleum-based plastic in any field. Not even in medicine. Since the human body can break down PLA without residue, the bioplastic is perfect for implants, suture material or as a basis for growing tissue.

The raw materials for PLA are biological - made from sugar, starch or cellulose, which are then processed into lactic acid. This is then used to make cups and T-shirts...
... compostable plastic packaging for all kinds of food...
... or other green products for chemistry, industry and medicine.

Udo Mühlbauer also sees a lot of potential for the use of the green plastic in agriculture: "Bioplastics, especially a combination of polyester and PLA, can be plowed in without any problems because they decompose over time." And with compostable organic garbage bags and coffee capsules made from PLA, everyone can make their own households more sustainable and protect our oceans from even more waste.

The future of bioplastics: big challenges - great prospects

One thing is clear: Despite new laws, the road to petroleum-free plastic production is still long. PLA still faces many challenges. Waste systems, for example, still have to adapt to the environmentally friendly materials. Currently, there is no dedicated recycling path for PLA products in Germany - the valuable raw materials are often incinerated with conventional plastic waste. In the long term, however, packaging and plastics manufacturers will have to switch to green alternatives, because the market for bioplastics will continue to grow in the coming years. This is due not least to the increasing environmental awareness of industry, politicians and consumers.