03 May 2007 23:13 [Source: ICIS news]
By Al Greenwood
HOUSTON (ICIS news)--Regulations and rising oil prices could increase US demand for degradable bioplastics, a trade group said on Thursday.
"This is really an exciting area," said Matt Carr, director for industrial and environmental policy for the group, the Biotechnology Industrial Organization.
The US government has a policy encouraging federal agencies and contractors to use bio-based products.
In San Francisco, California, a new law requires that plastic shopping bags be degradable.
At the same time, higher oil prices are making bioplastics price competitive.
Nonetheless, corn was keeping production costs high, Carr said. The bacteria that makes the bioplastic feed on sugar produced from corn.
In addition, customers consider bioplastics untried and risky, Carr said. "Folks don't want to go out on a limb and try a new product and risk there being a problem," he said.
Moreover, the federal programme is moving slowly, with just six categories of products approved, Carr said. "Here we are in 2007, and the programme is still in its infancy."
Nonetheless, companies are marketing bioplastics.
DuPont is selling 1,3 propanediol (PDO) as Sorona, and Cargill's NatureWorks is selling polylactic acid (PLA) as Ingeo.
Another bioplastic, polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), is being marketed as Mirel by its producers, Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midlands.
Mirel production should start in the second half of 2008 at a plant the companies are building in Clinton, Iowa.
The plant will produce 50,000 tonnes/year, with the potential to produce four times as much through expansions, said Jim Barber, Metabolix executive officer.
Metabolix has relationships with bag producers, whose equipment can handle Mirel, Barber said. "It fits right into the existing industry."
In other cases, companies will market products with Mirel as a less expensive alternative, he said.
Degradable turf stakes, for example, save companies the expense of sending out crews to retrieve the metallic versions, Barber said. Otherwise, the company plans to market Mirel as a premium product, he said. A $2.50 cup of coffee with a lid made of Mirel would cost 3 to 5 cents more.
That premium could shrink if oil prices rise or if sugar prices fall, he said.
Sugar makes up a large part of the company's costs, although Metabolix has not released a figure, Barber said.
Those costs would drop if companies could profitably produce sugar from cellulose, Carr said.
With cellulose, production for bioplastics would improve by a similar magnitude as that for ethanol: from 15bn gallons to 60-100bn gallons, he said.
To lower the costs of cellulose, companies are developing crops that can grow other products in addition to biomass.
US chemicals maker Rohm and Haas has teamed up with energy crop firm Ceres to develop crops that produce methacrylate monomers in addition to cellulose.
The three-year research project is funded by a $1.5m (€1.11m) grant from the US Department of Agriculture.
Metabolix is developing a switchgrass that also produces PHA, Barber said. The company could be in field trials in about four years, he said.
Meanwhile, the biotech organisation is reviewing how government policy could increase demand for bioplastics.
The group would like the federal government to provide a 10-cent/lb bioplastic tax incentive, Carr said.
Also, the organisation is looking at the proposed 2007 farm bill to find ways to increase funding for the federal programme, he said.
($1.00 = € 0.74)
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