Bioplastics need laws and funding

Thailand has the potential to compete and become a leader in bioplastic production but legislation and funding are needed to boost the scale of production.

"With an investment of 70 billion baht across the bioplastic production chain, we would see a yearly return of 200 billion baht," said Dr Wantanee Chongkum, director of the innovation department of the National Innovation Agency (NIA).

"Compared to other applications, making bioplastic from agricultural goods is the most profitable. Cassava can be made into bioplastic with a return of more than 20 baht per kilogramme, compared to 25 satang for cassava oil. We should be exporting finished products, not raw materials."

Domestically, building the production facilities requires a large amount of investment while the demand for bioplastics in Thailand is still small.

"We are in a research phase. Economic analysis needs to be conducted properly in order to determine the costs of switching from normal plastic to bioplastic," said Dr Wantanee.

In order to spur the growth of the bioplastics industry, suitable policies must be developed.

"We need to implement a policy that is suitable for Thai consumers' behaviour," she said.

For example, many Thais already separate their food waste into plastic bags before discarding it with the trash.

"If these bags were biodegradable, then we could use them for fertiliser production like they do in Japan," she elaborated.

Rising public concern over the effects of global climate change has been an important catalyst for business operators to start using bioplastic, whether to enhance their image or out of genuine concern.

The growing demand could improve the economies of scale for production with the implication that the industry would become more commercially viable.

In fact, large companies such as Nokia, Sony and Mitsubishi are already manufacturing products with bioplastic components as a marketing gimmick.

"Luxury items such as phones, radios and cars can absorb the higher prices of bioplastic, whereas plastic bags cannot," said Somsak Borrisuttanakul, president of the Thai Bioplastic Industry Association. He sees the future of bioplastics shifting away from packaging, where it is now largely concentrated.

Mr Somsak urges the government to invest further in the development of bioplastic, and come up with adequate green policies to diversify and increase the usage of bioplastics in Thailand.

"In Europe, the growth of demand for bioplastics is around 20% per year," said Assoc Prof Dr Songsri Kulpreecha of the Faculty of Science of Chulalongkorn University at a recent seminar on developing the local bioplastics industry.

The university invested 15 million last year and will be investing more than 30 million baht this year in machinery to test bioplastics.

"Ninety-five to 98% of bioplastic packaging produced in Thailand is for direct export. Even within Thailand, sales are mainly to clients who export to companies requiring biodegradable packaging," said Teerawat Teeraphatpornchai, business development manager of Advance Packaging Co Ltd.

Nonetheless, the company, predicting the profitability of the market within five years, has invested five million baht in trial raw materials.

It is considering investing another five million in developing bioplastics with the aim of seeing whether their properties are suitable for the Thai packaging market, such as moisture-resistant and breathable plastics.

While consumers' knowledge centres mainly on packaging and convenience, supermarket customer Darai Thirawat said, "Convenience is important - but if there were two retailers offering the same products in the same mall, but one used biodegradable bags and the other did not, then I would choose the one that offered the biodegradable option.

"It may be a small trend now, but young people will get involved, and eventually, it will become a movement, as in western countries," she added.

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