Bioplastic market expands despite recession

A Healthy Stretch

24 June 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Development and marketing are surging as bioplastics categories expand to meet a worldwide demand that is growing exponentially

WHILE STILL considered to be in its infancy, bioplastics development, production and demand will continue to see enormous growth in coming years.

Germany-based Helmut Kaiser Consultancy estimates that the global bioplastics market is growing at 20-30%/year, and will jump from 400m lb (203,000 tonnes) in 2006, to 10bn lb by 2015. A 2007 report from US-based BCC Research forecast the global bioplastics growth rate at 17%/year from 541m lb in 2007 to 1.2bn lb by 2012.

"Overall, we see the market growing by double-digit percentages, although there are significant differences for different product/market combinations," says Marcel Dartee, global biopolymers director for US plastics compounder PolyOne. "Much of that growth today is linked to typical compostable and biodegradable biopolymers."

The segment currently accounts for less than 1% of PolyOne's total sales, says Dartee. The company expects to continue to increase its share with new products.

"Biopolymers is one of our strategic growth platforms as it fits perfectly within our sustainability effort," he says.

"We have and we will devote considerable resources in developing masterbatches for existing biopolymers like PLA [polylactic acid], PHBV [poly-3-hydroxy butyrateco-valerate], and starch blends, as well as engineered thermoplastics and thermoplastic elastomers with high bio-derived content."

Bioplastics account for less than 10% of the total global plastics use, says Paul Iacobucci, manager of organic peroxide business development and high polymer specialties at US-based AkzoNobel Polymer Chemicals. He notes double-digit growth, particularly in packaging, as well as in more durable applications.

"The drivers of the growth are twofold: consumer demand and the volatile price of petroleum," says Iacobucci. "Although the recent fall in oil prices has slowed interest in this area, it is clear that petroleum prices have once again begun to climb, making bioresins short-term economically competitive, as well as the sustainable solution for the long term."

Bioplastics has already become a considerable market, both on the retail and on the resin level, says Hans van der Pol, marketing manager for Netherlands-based lactic acid producer PURAC.

"Reduction of the environmental footprint and innovation in the chemical industry are strong drivers for developments in bioplastics markets," he says. "Brand owners and retailers are taking note because companies like Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart have announced major moves towards bioplastics."

Coca-Cola launched its new 100% recyclable plastic bottle under the trademark PlantBottle, 30% of which is made from sugar cane and molasses, with the balance being petroleum-based polyethylene (PET).

The company will pilot the bottle with Dasani and sparkling water brands in select markets later this year, and with VitaminWater in 2010.

German chemical major BASF notes that because of cost reductions or environmental benefits, bioplastics often command a higher value in the marketplace.

The meaning of bioplastics

The word "bioplastics" is no longer limited to biodegradable or compostable plastics made from natural materials such as corn or starch.

Bioplastics could also include petroleum-based plastics that are degradable; natural-based plastics that are not necessarily biodegradable; and plastics that contain both petroleum-based and plant-based materials, which could be biodegradable or not.

"The term bioplastics includes both biodegradability as a product property and the use of renewable raw materials. A bioplastic can be both, or one or the other," says Keith Edwards, biodegradable plastics business manager for BASF.

BASF sees biodegradability in the context of organics recycling (compostability) and diversion from landfills as a major market trend. The company estimates global bioplastic growth rates at more than 20% for several years.

"We expect new legislation for bioplastics around organics recycling in Canada and the US in the coming years," says Edwards. "These products are favorable in the packaging as well as in agriculture markets, offering physical properties similar to current materials with the added functionality of biodegradability."

BASF's current bioplastics offerings include Ecoflex, an aliphatic-aromatic copolyester, and Ecovio, a compound based on Ecoflex and 45% by weight PLA. Both are fully biodegradable in controlled compost processes.

BASF is building a new 60,000 tonne/year facility for Ecoflex at its Ludwigshafen site, which currently produces 14,000 tonnes/year of the bioplastic. Ecoflex was developed in the mid-1990s while Ecovio was launched in 2006.

The company expects total capacity of 75,000 tonnes/year for both bioplastics combined in Germany by late next year.

"We have numerous worldwide joint development projects with Ecoflex. For Ecovio, we are expanding the technology into films, profiles and molded products," says Edwards.

While natural polymers such as PLA, starch blends, PHBV and polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) dominate the bioplastics market from a material perspective, more and more blends of bioresins with traditional polymers are being developed.

"Since many of the current bioresins in homopolymer form cannot provide all of the benefits of petroleum-based resins, blends may be required to meet the performance specifications," says Iacobucci.

The current generation of bioplastics predominantly lack heat resistance, impact resistance and barrier properties, says Dartee. PolyOne has a development joint venture (JV) with US agribusiness Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for bioplasticizers.

For the past five years, AkzoNobel has been working with additives that can improve bioresin properties. The company also partnered with PURAC this year to develop PLA plastic additives made from organic peroxide technologies.

"Organic peroxides modify the resin without incorporating additional chemical fragments into the resin, thus not changing the overall bioresin content of the plastic," says Iacobucci.

PURAC says it has developed D-lactide, which greatly improves heat resistance even up to 180˚C (356˚F) for PLA plastics.

PURAC announced another partnership this year with Japanese chemical firm Toyobo for the production of D-lactide-based PLA for use as coatings or adhesives for packaging films and materials. In September 2008, PURAC joined Swiss polymer technology firm Sulzer Chemtech to develop a more cost-effective polymerization process to produce high-quality PLA.

Netherlands-based plastics producer Synbra will use the technology for a new 5,000 short ton/year (4,536 tonne/year) facility, which will produce a PLA-based foamed polystyrene (PS) product called Biofoam by the end of 2009. Synbra expects to expand to around 50,000 tons/year in the next few years.

The different economies of scales of lactic acid and lactide production versus PLA production prompted PURAC to work with a number of partners to develop PLA production capacity, says van der Pol. "Ultimately, our vision is that various integrated PLA production facilities arise."

PURAC-produced D-lactide last year for the first time on an industrial scale in its Spanish plant. The company is planning another full-scale lactide plant to be integrated at its new lactic acid facility in Thailand, which officially opened in April 2008.

In 2007, Japanese chemical firm Teijin launched its high heat-resistant bioplastic Biofront, which the company claims is the world's first commercially produced stereocomplex PLA made with high-purity L-lactate and D-lactate.

Teijin's PLA plastic has a melting point of 210°C, a significant improvement over the 170°C melting point of conventional PLAs, says Hideshi Kurihara, general manager, high-performance biomaterials project at Teijin's new business development group.

"Biofront rivals that of petroleum-based commonly heat-resistant plastic polybutylene terephtalate (PBT)," says Kurihara. "With this level of heat resistance, fabrics made from Biofront can be ironed."

Initial applications for the bioplastic include apparel and automotive interiors. Japanese carmaker Mazda is using 100% Biofront in the seat fabrics of its Mazda Premacy RE hybrid vehicle, says Kurihara. "Teijin's subsidiary Teijin Fibers will continue to refine Biofront fabric use in automobiles, with a sales goal of ¥100m [$1m] in 2011 and ¥300m in 2012."

The company aims to produce 5,000 tonns of Biofront in 2011. A 1,000 ton/year PLA facility in Ehime prefecture, which Teijin acquired from compatriot carmaker Toyota last year, is expected to produce Biofront this summer. The new plant's capacity has yet to be confirmed, says Karihara. Teijin is producing 200 tons of the bioplastic at its pilot plant in Yamaguchi prefecture.

Teijin's 50% bioplastic JV with US agribusiness Cargill, called NatureWorks, meanwhile, is looking for a new location in Asia or Europe for its second manufacturing facility that will produce its PLA-based bioplastic Ingeo. The company will evaluate the location based on projected growth in these regions and the availability of PLA feedstock.

"We anticipate steady and gradual growth for the market over the next two years," says NatureWorks spokesman Steve Davies. "We continue to fine tune our resin grades to address the diverse needs of the multiple market segments into which we are selling, from single-use items such as flexible and rigid packaging and food service ware, beverage packaging, textiles, nonwovens, and increasingly durable plastics markets."

As an example, Davies notes customer US snack foods manufacturer Frito-Lay, which in April announced the 2010 launch of its groundbreaking compostable chip bag for the snack product SunChips using Ingeo bioplastic.

Ingeo will be used in the packaging's outer-print web film and inner-barrier web film. Frito Lay said it did not replace all the materials with PLA, as there was not enough PLA available and there was "still work needed to maintain the packaging's quality."

Last month, NatureWorks also completed additional equipment installations at its Blair, Nebraska, US plant, which doubled capacity to 140 tonnes/year. The Nebraska plant also inaugurated a new manufacturing process late last year that further lowered the facility's carbon dioxide emissions and energy use.

US bioscience company Metabolix, which has a bioplastic JV called Telles with its partner, ADM, is also building the first production facility for Telles' Mirel bioplastic product in Clinton, Iowa, US. The 110m lb/year facility is slated to be completed in December.

Metabolix CEO Rick Eno says it will begin shipping product to customers who will be introducing new products and applications over the next 12-24 months.

Despite the economic downturn, Eno says recent one-on-one discussions with customers and prospects revealed that 74% of its pipeline customers cited no change in their overall interests with the bioplastic and will move ahead with plans for using Mirel.

"Mirel continues to be in great demand given the difficult external environment," says Eno. "We have received over 60 new leads per month so far this year. However, given the capacity constraint of our pilot facility, we have focused on our existing customer and prospect relationships."

Metabolix is also seeking internationally recognized certification and testing to substantiate claims of its corn-based plastic. Eno says Mirel recently received the European Vincotte Home and Industrial Compost certification approval. The bioplastic's biodegradability certification in both water and soil environments was approved in October 2008.

Mirel is the only nonstarch bioplastic so far to gain all four Vincotte certifications, says Eno. Given the proliferating ecolabeling in the marketplace, he adds that Metabolix is also active in seeking stricter regulation on existing certification processes.

While bioplastics are being embraced, labeling confusion, skepticism on functional abilities and environmental claims, and the fact that bioplastics still command a higher price compared with traditional plastics, continue to pose challenges.

Biodegradable plastics are not appropriate for all applications, says Eno. "Take plumbing, for example. You would not want biodegradable plastic pipes buried in the ground. They would lose stability and spring leaks." Several PLA bioplastic producers also note the limitations of PLA. "Further improvement, especially in terms of overall strength, still needs to be achieved," says Kurihara.

One concern for traditional plastics is the growing use of degradable additives in polyethylene (PET) packaging, according to a late May statement from the US-based National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR). The group says no data has been made public to substantiate claims of degradability of PET resin products containing degradable additives. It is also unknown how degradable additives can affect the quality of both the PET recycling stream and the recycled PET products themselves.

"We urge PET resin and packaging manufacturers to refrain from introductions of degradable-additive containing products until data is made available for review and verification, to better understand these products and their potential ramifications," says NAPCOR chairman Tom Busard.

Read Doris de Guzman's green chemicals blog

By: Doris de Guzman
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