Addressing the Challenges of Southeast Asia’s Growing Biomaterial Industry

Cassava can be converted into a type of bioplastic material that has less climate change impact than petrochemical plastics. Photo credit: Asian Development Bank.

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Bioplastics industry development hinges on strategic direction and vision, environmental sustainability, and better waste management.


Bioplastics have gained global popularity as an alternative to petrochemical plastics to help combat plastic waste pollution, move away from use of fossil fuels, and spur a bioeconomy. The environmental benefits of such bio-based materials compared to petrochemical plastics can vary depending on i) the type of resin, ii) what consumer product the bioplastic is converted into, iii) how the bioplastic waste is disposed of, and iv) which environmental impact categories are of concern (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, water, agricultural land use, etc.).

In Southeast Asia, bioplastics can also be a fuel for economic growth apart from being a climate-friendly option to petrochemical plastics. Thailand, the world's second largest producer of bioplastics (after the United States), exports 90% of its output to major countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, and the People’s Republic of China. As demand for bioplastics is expected to rise in the coming years, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries can take advantage of this growing market opportunity using domestic resources.

The Asian Development Bank published a policy brief that takes a closer look at bioplastics and the environmental issues that need to be addressed. It is based on findings from a cost–benefit analysis of Thailand’s bioplastics value chain conducted in 2023. The brief discusses challenges facing the industry and presents the opportunities, as well as improvement strategies that countries in Southeast Asia can consider as demand for bioplastics increases.

What are bioplastics?

Bioplastics are plastic materials made of substances that are derived from biomass materials (e.g., sugar, cassava, and agriculture waste) and/or can be broken down by microorganisms through processes that occur naturally in the environment or technologically enhanced natural processes (Figure 1). 

There are various types of bioplastic resins according to the kind of materials used, whether they are made from bio-based materials and/or is biodegradable. Manufactured in various ways, these materials may also differ in physical properties such as durability and clarity.

Figure 1: Bioplastics Products and Classification of Materials

HDPE = high-density polyethylene, PBAT = polybutylene adipate terephthalate, PBS = polybutylene succinate, PCL = polycaprolactone, PE = polyethylene, PET = polyethylene terephthalate, PLA = polylactic acid, PP = polypropylene, TPS = thermoplastic starch.

 Source: Asian Development Bank.

Bioplastic products may look nearly identical to products made from petrochemical plastics. In fact, certain bioplastics—such as bio-polyethylene terephthalate and bio-polyethylene—have the same properties as their petrochemical counterparts because they share the exact same chemical structure. However, the “bio-” type bioplastics are made from bio-based materials, such as sugar and cassava, and can also biodegrade in the environment.

How do bioplastics impact the environment?

Cradle-to-gate process[1]

One of the key benefits of bioplastics when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is that the materials absorb carbon dioxide during photosynthesis through the crops that are used as feedstock materials. During raw material extraction up to final production of the resins, most bioplastic resins have lower GHG emissions while some have higher GHG emissions compared to conventional plastics made from petrochemicals.

The ADB study showed that climate change impacts of producing polylactic acid, polybutylene succinate, and thermoplastic starch resins cradle-to-gate in Thailand are less than half of the impacts of their petrochemical plastic counterparts (e.g., polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene). 
They also consume less energy resources than their petrochemical plastic counterparts.

However, certain bioplastic resins, such as polyhydroxyalkanoate, have much higher cradle-to-gate GHG emissions than petrochemical plastics because they consume more energy during the feedstock-to-resin conversion process, and during the resin manufacturing stage.

Also, most bioplastics have higher impacts in other categories, such as land and water use, overgrowth of algae on freshwater bodies from fertilizer runoff, and particulate matter emissions. The higher impacts of bioplastics in water use and eutrophication can be attributed to the use of fertilizers during the crop farming process and electricity and chemical use during feedstock-to-resin conversion. Bioplastics consume more agricultural land since they rely on crops.


The life cycle GHG emissions of bioplastics can be higher or lower compared to petrochemical plastics depending on how the bioplastic products are treated at their end-of-life. In the case of polylactic acid, sending the waste resin to a facility that does industrial composting, mechanical recycling, or anaerobic digestion will result in lower life cycle GHG emissions than if such waste went to a landfill. 

GHG emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) are released during biodegradation of bioplastics but the climate change impact will vary depending on whether the carbon atoms are converted into carbon dioxide or methane (Figure 2). In anaerobic conditions, more methane is released, which results in higher climate change impacts. In aerobic conditions, such as industrial composting where there is more oxygen present, more carbon dioxide is released than methane, which results in lower climate change impacts. 

Figure 2: Greenhouse Gas Emissions During Biodegradation of Bioplastics Under Anaerobic Versus Aerobic Conditions

CH4 = methane, CO2 = carbon dioxide, PLA = polylactic acid.
Source: Asian Development Bank.

What issues hinder the growth of the bioplastics industry in Southeast Asia?

Key challenges that affect the future of bioplastics in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia are

  • Lack of clear direction in government policies. Stakeholders are unable to plan effectively and make targeted improvements in the value chain in the absence of national policies on bioplastic production, use, and waste management.
  • High production costs. Bioplastics are generally more expensive to produce than petrochemical plastics due to the more complex process of converting sugarcane and cassava bioplastic resins, and the cost of research and development. The financial cost competitiveness of bioplastics is also highly dependent on the price of oil and gas that varies depending on supply and demand, cost of extraction and production, and political events and crises. 
  • Limited domestic consumption. Mass uptake of bioplastics in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia has not been successful as there are no bans on single-use petrochemical plastics, incentive schemes for bioplastic products, or a national requirement for bio-based content in plastics.
  • Complications for mechanical plastics recycling industry. Biodegradable plastics are incompatible with conventional mechanical recycling technologies.
  • Absence of industrial composting facilities for managing bioplastic waste. There are very few or no industrial composting facilities to ensure that bioplastics fully biodegrade and prevent methane emissions.
  • Potential competition with food production. A substantial increase in the amount of sugarcane and cassava feedstock used for bioplastics could impact food supplies and prices.
  • Limited consumer awareness. Many consumers lack understanding about bioplastics. Consumers are often confused about how and where they should dispose of their bioplastic products. 

  • Environmental trade-offs. Bioplastics reduce GHG emissions and fossil resource consumption but result in higher impacts in water and agricultural land use and particulate matter formation.
How can the bioplastics industry in Southeast Asia be improved?

Bioplastics provide benefits depending on the problems the material is trying to address, such as climate change, fossil fuel reliance, or economic growth. However, bioplastics production and use can also lead to other types of problems if not managed properly.

With an expected increase in global demand for bioplastics, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia could take advantage of the opportunity to fuel the economy using domestic resources. There are several strategies to improve the bioplastics industry in the region.

Strategic direction and vision through policies and public institutions

  • Identify, through research and dialogue, the applications of bioplastics that target specific problems. This can help define their role in addressing plastic waste pollution and promoting a circular economy.
  • Explore performance-based financial incentives for manufacturers. Government agencies can consider linking new financial incentives to targeted outcomes that manufacturers must achieve, such as environment, social, and governance performance indicators.

Environmental sustainability in a bioeconomy

  • Contribute to agriculture sector reform. The public and private sectors can initiate reform in agricultural practices, while addressing issues such as supply constraints, impacts on biodiversity and soil health, and food security implications.
  • Promote corporate clean energy in resin manufacturing facilities. Corporate procurement of clean energy, such
as rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, could help bioplastics manufacturers reduce their environmental impacts.
  • Incentivize supply chain engagement. To reduce non-climate environmental impacts, such as agricultural land use and water use, bioplastic manufacturers can engage with actors further upstream in the value chain at the farm-level. Incentives could be provided for policies and technologies that focus on efficient use of fertilizers and monitor industrial wastewater discharge.

Waste management and circularity

  • Invest in infrastructure such as industrial composting facilities and anaerobic digesters to properly manage bioplastic and general organic wastes.
  • Institutionalize coordination in waste management. Alignment of all government agencies involved in waste management infrastructure development could help avoid delays in implementation.
  • Develop effective bioplastic labeling schemes. Establishing a single national label for bioplastics that are biodegradable and making it mandatory to be put on all bioplastic products will help both consumers and informal waste workers understand how to handle bioplastic waste.
  • Create incentives to recover bioplastic waste to encourage waste collectors to sort out bioplastic
waste and send it to an industrial composting or anaerobic digestion facility.

[1] Cradle-to-gate refers to all processes from raw material extraction, processing, and manufacturing up to the product at the factory gate.


Asian Development Bank. 2023. Is There a Case for Bioplastics? Experience from Thailand. Manila: ADB.

Piya Kerdlap
 Technical Assistance on Promoting Action on 
Plastic Pollution from Source to Sea in Asia and the Pacific, Asian Development Bank

Piya Kerdlap is a sustainability scientist and international development professional. He has 10 years of experience in life cycle assessment, circular economy, and clean energy in Southeast Asia. He is the founder and managing director of consulting firm PXP Sustainability. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and PhD in mechanical engineering from the National University of Singapore. 

James Baker
Senior Circular Economy Specialist (Plastic Wastes), Climate Change, Resilience, and Environment Cluster, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank

James Baker leads the regional marine plastics reduction program and supports operationalization of Strategy 2030 Operational Priority 3 and the Healthy Oceans Action Plan. He also supports country programming and sovereign and private sector project teams in identifying and promoting circular economy activities within their programs and investments. Prior to ADB, he was in senior project development and investment roles, and his background was in industrial recycling. He is studying for his PhD at University of Leeds.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

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