UK can lead the world in bioplastics, says new report

27 April 2018
UK can lead the world in bioplastics, says new report

The UK is well placed to become the world leader in bioplastics, generating jobs and revenue for the UK, while tackling the global plastic waste problem, according to a new report, Bio-based & Biodegradable Plastic in the UK.

The report by bioeconomy consultants NNFCC, details that the global movement against plastics represents a significant economic opportunity for the UK. With policy and funding from government, bioplastics – plastics made from plants instead of oil, many of which are biodegradable – could create 34,000 jobs and contribute £1.92 billion to the UK economy in the next decade[1].

The plastics challenge

Plastics have many advantages – they are lightweight, durable and easy to shape – so are critical to industries from packaging to cars and planes. But they come at huge environmental cost, requiring 3.5 million tonnes of oil per year for production in the UK, and taking centuries to decompose, creating landfill, polluting oceans and blighting landscapes.

Recycling is widely advocated as the solution, but the report highlights the limits of this approach. Although most plastics can be recycled in theory, the majority are not. Some 50% of plastic packaging items don’t have viable recycling pathways[2]. For example, food packaging needs to be cleaned before recycling which is often not possible (street food, music festivals, etc).  Despite best efforts to increase recycling, plastic continues to enter natural and marine environments.

The report also rejects calls for an outright plastics ban, which would see them replaced with traditional materials such as glass. It cites calculations that replacing plastic with such materials would increase EU greenhouse gas emissions by almost two thirds (61%)[3], largely due to the energy required to transport a heavier load.

It concludes that a shift to plastics produced from renewable materials and designed to be biodegradable would help significantly to alleviate the environmental problems posed by plastics while embracing its benefits.

A global problem, a UK economic opportunity

The report highlights that the UK is particularly well placed to take advantage of the bioplastics opportunity.

The UK is the fourth largest consumer of plastics in Europe and is home to novel plastics-intensive industries such as automotive and aerospace. UK plastics exports are worth £8.2bn, built on well-established supply chains. Many UK customers are already demanding bioplastic alternatives.

The UK also has the skills and creative approach needed to innovate in bioplastics. It is home to world-leading universities and cutting-edge biotechnology companies, that have been bolstered by considerable investment over the last decade. Plastics is the UK’s third largest manufacturing employer – skills and capabilities that will easily transfer to bioplastics’ production.

Further, the report highlights that the UK has sufficient waste biomass from agriculture to sustain a thriving bioplastics industry without the need to clear further land to plant biomass crops.

Adrian Higson, Lead Consultant Bio-based Products, at NNFCC says:

“The UK is the birthplace of the plastic industry. With the right investment in scaleup facilities, the UK could be the world leader in the export of sustainable, biodegradable plastics, helping tackle the world’s most pressing environmental challenges in the process.”

“However, our report also highlights the dangers of insufficient investment. Bioplastics are ripe for innovation. If the UK doesn’t capitalise on the opportunity, UK manufacturers will become reliant on foreign imports for bioplastics.”

Seizing the opportunity

Thanks to a decade of investment in research, bioplastics now have comparable functionality to oil-based plastics. The UK now needs to capitalise on the commercial opportunities presented in the UK and abroad. To do so, the government needs to support the transition of the country’s ground-breaking R&D into industrial-scale production, thereby reaching competitive scale quickly. This demands policy support, new open access production facilities, and a supportive environment to attract private investment in bioplastics.

Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Bioplastics, who was consulted in the development of the report, says:

“Reducing plastic waste is a global imperative and it’s encouraging that demand for cleaner alternatives is now being driven by the public, thanks to widespread publicity in popular media about the damaging impact of plastics on the environment. The UK is well placed to meet this demand given that it is a world leader in bioplastics research and early stage demonstrations. If government and industry collaborate effectively, this has the potential to scale to meet industrial level demand”.

This has many economic and environmental advantages: growth of a globally important industry in the UK, job creation in Britain’s industrial heartland, reducing plastic waste in oceans and the natural environment, and reduction of CO2 emissions associated with fossil-fuel based plastics. The UK already aims to eliminate plastic waste by the end of 2042, and bioplastics are crucial in achieving this.

[1] CEBR, The future potential economic impacts of a bio-plastics industry in the UK,

[2] Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the Future of Plastics, onomy_Pages.pdf

[3] Plastics Europe, Plastics’ contribution to climate protection,



Established by the UK Government in 2003, as the National Non-Food Crops Centre, NNFCC has grown to become a leading independent consultancy focused on understanding bio-renewable markets and technologies.

It specialises in market segments, traditional and emerging, utilising biomass as a raw material; the business is built on the potential for biomass to provide a sustainable feedstock, replacing fossil fuels in a low carbon circular economy. NNFCC’s work embraces the understanding of how Government policies are stimulating market development, the competition between new biobased and established fossil-based value chains, the varied competing biobased technologies and the sustainability arguments which drive or inhibit market development.