DVD disks made of vegetable-based plastic by Victor Company of Japan (JVC), in Tokyo (file)
DVD disks made of vegetable-based plastic by Victor Company of Japan (JVC), in Tokyo (file)

Asia's plastic industry is growing, with China and India challenging established producers such as Thailand.  Now, there is increasing attention to the environmental impact of plastics.  Both environmentalists and industry executives agree biodegradable plastics will need to play a larger role in the industry's future.

Asia's plastics industry is seeing new expansion, driven by demand in China and India, as consumers and product makers look to plastics to play the role of humble bag at the corner shop, all the way to sophisticated engineering parts.

The global plastics market is estimated at around 200 million tons and has been growing five percent, annually.

Some two million tons of Thai 14 million annual tons of solid waste are non-degradable plastics

In the early days, plastic was viewed as a cheap and convenient alternative to other forms of containers and wrapping, such as paper or even traditional banana leaf in regions of Asia.

But Greenpeace activist Ply Pirom says, gradually, awareness of the impact of plastics on the environment has grown.

"People start to use [plastic] they are not really aware of the environmental impact until the past 10 years when the garbage problem is more and more," Pirom said. "Then people start to say, 'Hey it really a problem'. If you look at the trend of waste separation it's still not [much] progress but it's increasing."

Thailand is now a key regional producer of raw materials for plastics and finished products.  The Thai Plastics Industries Association has a membership of 500 companies.

In 2009, Thai exports of plastics products ranked among the top 10 in industrial sectors, with plastics exports worth more than $2.37 billion, targeting key markets such as Japan, the United States, Australia and Indonesia.

The production of plastic products across the region has been rising, with China and India also seen as major producers generating millions of tons of plastic goods each year.

But both environmentalists and industrialists are in agreement alternatives to plastics need to found. They point to rising environmental costs, calls for substitution of renewable resources and steps to reduce greenhouse gases, key contributors to global warming and effecting climate change.

Krianglit Sukcharoensin, President, Thai Plastics
Krianglit Sukcharoensin, President, Thai Plastics Industries Association

Thai Plastics Industries Association's Krianglit says biodegradable plastics, bio-plastics, are the future goal for the plastics industry.

"In future, the final target should be 100 percent to be biodegradable and right now we try to achieve that," he said. "We buy the biodegradable mix with our normal plastic, maybe 50/50; they can be biodegradable but not so quickly like the 100 percent [plastic]."

Work is well underway. Currently corn-based biodegradable plastic materials are used to produce poly-lactic acid and drawn from plants with high starch content, such as corn and cassava roots.

Bio-plastics are seen as being on the verge of a major breakthrough. Already they are being used in packaging, electronics, autos and agriculture.

In Furano Japan the community uses biodegradable plastic bags to collect household organic waste this in turn produces organic fertilizers. A pilot project is now underway in Thailand in a 730-household community north of Bangkok using bio-plastics in waste management.

Thai Plastics Industries Association's Krianglit says Thailand's strength lies in the agricultural sector contributing to the future of bio-plastics.

 "We are an agricultural product producer.  For example, we have corn; we have the tapioca; and, we have the sugar - all raw materials based in Thailand, and exports. When the technology is perfect and good enough for us to apply, then we can be a good exporter in the future to the worldwide market."

Daniel Loh, the BASF head of business management in specialty plastics in Singapore, says the future challenge is to ensure communities are involved in the debate about biodegradable plastics.

"Bring this message correctly across to the consumers to the relevant parties, legislatures, that biodegradable plastics serve a certain purpose," he said. "It is not merely to replace normal plastic bags.  If waste collection methods are not in place, the structures are not in place, and if consumers have habits of littering plastics indiscriminately, that does not change.  These are the challenges that we will face. "

Loh says countries across Asia are increasingly aware of the issue of plastics waste and management, including Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia.  But he says, in Southeast Asia, Thailand has taken the most steps in dealing with the problem.

BASF has joined with German aid agency, GTZ, along with bio-plastic associations from Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the United States, to work together on research with Thailand's National Innovation Agency (NIA).

Thailand has a plan for development of the bio-plastics industry by 2012, with a budget of $54 million to promote research and development.

Environmentalists want to see more government support promoting development of bio-plastics, as well as having consumers pay a higher price for using plastic containers and bags.