PHA shows great promise in packaging applcation

09 February 2011 07:38  [Source: ICB]

PHA bioplastic is showing great promise in packaging applications despite its current price premium

Amid the explosion of polylactic acid (PLA) and green polyethylene (PE) use in consumer goods and food packaging applications, the bioplastic industry awaits the full-scale commercialization of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). PHAs show significant potential in packaging, especially for durable applications.



PHAs are linear polyesters naturally produced by bacterial fermentation of sugar or lipids. Telles, the US-based bioplastics joint venture between renewable chemical company Metabolix and agribusiness firm Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is ramping up the world's largest commercial-scale PHA plant in Clinton, Iowa, US, designed to produce 110m lb/year (50,000 tonnes/year) of the corn-based plastic under the brand Mirel.

Telles began making commercial shipments of Mirel PHA to customers when it started the facility in March 2010, according to Metabolix CEO Rick Eno. The company anticipated the plant running at full capacity by mid-2013.

"We expect a number of new customer announcements for Mirel as we continue to establish the foundation for this substantial business," says Eno. "Mirel is now commercially available in a variety of grades including thermoforming, injection molding, cast/blown film and sheet. It can replace many petroleum-based plastic materials from olefins and styrenics to ABS [acrylonitrile-butadiene -styrene] and polycarbonate [PC]."

The market for PHAs in packaging is still extremely small, notes Jim Lunt, managing director of US consulting firm Jim Lunt & Associates. "I would expect to see growth in this area as capacity comes online from Telles and Tianjin Green Bioscience in China," says Lunt. "However, predicted pricing will limit its growth against other bioplastics in the single-use packaging markets."

PHA producers with capacity ranging between 1,000 and 50,000 tonnes/year include Telles, Italy-based Bio-On, China-based Tianjin Green Bioscience and another China-based company Tianan Biologic, he says.

Packaging and agricultural film are the most important markets for PHAs, but Metabolix expects applications to become more diverse.

Last October, Telles launched a thermoforming grade for use in food-contact applications, while in May, US consumer products company Newell Rubbermaid launched its Paper Mate biodegradable pen and pencil, which uses Mirel for its plastic components. Eno also points out the use of Mirel as an alternative to petroleum-based plastic plant pots. Its US-based customer Ball Horticultural launched its SoilWrap
"The market for PHAs in packaging is still extremely small"
Jim Lunt
Managing director, Jim Lunt & Associates 
biodegradable plant containers last year.

Mirel's key features include heat and moisture resistance, durability and ability to be processed on existing equipment and infrastructure. It offers numerous disposal choices and can [even] be used in marine/aquatic applications," says Eno. "It possesses the physical properties of conventional plastics - yet is bio-based and biodegradable in natural soil, water environments, and in home and industrial composting systems in areas where such facilities are available."

Like nearly all bioplastics and organic matter, Mirel, however, is not designed to biodegrade in conventional landfills, Eno adds.

In packaging, Metabolix expects new product innovation using Mirel, especially in areas of functionality. "Mirel's combination of performance and biodegradability will enable the product or packaging designer to be able to think outside the box," says Eno.

As of 2010, PHA accounted for 1.4% of the total global bioplastic packaging market, according to a study by UK-based consultancy Pira International. By 2020, global bioplastic packaging demand is forecast to reach 884,000 tonnes, with an aggregate growth rate of 25% between 2010 and 2015, slowing to 18.3% between 2015-2020. "PHAs are forecast to achieve 41% growth over the 10-year period in this market," said Adam Page, head of information at Pira. "Telles is expected to become a major global player in bioplastic packaging."

Being a new technology does not come cheap. PHAs sell for $2.25-2.75/lb ($4,960-6,062/tonne, €3,661-4,475/tonne) for the resin, compared with around 80 cents/lb for conventional polyolefins - 85 cents/lb for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and $1.00/lb for polystyrene (PS), notes Lunt. "Potential competitive compostable products, such as PLA, sell for 85 cents to $1.25/lb, while blends with BASF's Ecoflex sell for around $2.00/lb and starch-based products for around $1.50-$2.20/lb," Lunt adds.

Some PHA applications, such as those that require marine biodegradability, could command higher prices, according to a June 2010 report by US investment firm Jefferies & Company. "Mirel commands a premium price, given the wide range of applications for which it can be used, its thermal stability versus PLA, relative insensitivity to moisture - particularly compared to starch-based plastic, its biodegradability in ambient conditions, broad processability and its green characteristics," said Jefferies analyst Laurence Alexander. "That said, initial indications of a 20-30% green premium for some PHA applications would likely not prove sustainable," he added.

Of the 540bn lb/year global plastics demand, Metabolix identified roughly 2bn lb of potential non-food end-market use, with a growth rate of 5%/year, and another 2bn lb of food applications for its Mirel bioplastics. "This represents around $10bn or more in potential PHA revenue," said Alexander.

Jefferies estimated that food-contact applications made up 10% of the company's customers, and the rest focused on packaging, business equipment, agriculture, cards, cosmetics, marine and aquatic applications, and compostable bags.

Typical Mirel customers are estimated to take nine to 15 months to complete their product qualifications and development cycle, and can use up to 20,000lb of material per trial, depending on the customers. Most customers are just beginning their product trials, said Alexander. "Metabolix is targeting 40-50 potential base customers, out of 100 core prospects cherry-picked from 3,000 potential opportunities, to sell out the 110m lb/year Clinton plant," he said.

Apart from ongoing development to reduce its cost base, Telles expects to obtain further food-approved grades in film and foam applications in the first half of 2011. The firm is also considering plans for further capacity expansion - either by debottlenecking or adding new capacity. The Clinton plant has the capability to expand up to roughly 450m lb/year.

Metabolix is also working on a crop program that explores PHA production from oilseeds, switchgrass and sugarcane. "We just started a wholly-owned subsidiary in Canada called Metabolix Oilseeds, with laboratory and greenhouse space specifically for the research and development of oilseeds for PHA development," says Eno.

By: Doris de Guzman
+1 713 525 2653

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