Corrected: INSIGHT: Europe ABS faces up to greener and cheaper alternatives

05 December 2012 13:36  [Source: ICIS news]

Correction: In the ICIS story headlined "INSIGHT: Europe ABS faces up to greener and cheaper alternatives" dated 5 December 2012, please read in the fourth paragraph ...German manufacturing giant Siemens... instead of ... Korean manufacturing giant Siemens.... A corrected story follows.

By Matt Tudball

LONDON (ICIS)--Is Europe’s drive for ‘greener’ and cheaper plastics a genuine threat to the production of prime, or virgin acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), or just an attractive alternative for those looking to take steps to help reduce their environmental impact or keep costs down?

In a world of super storms and flash flooding, it might seem to some that global warming and climate change is a very real and present danger. Taking any actions, no matter how small, to reduce emissions and work with cleaner materials is usually close to the top of any major plastics producers' ‘to do’ list.

One company working to actively tackle the issue of more environmentally friendly alternatives to ABS is Germany-based producer BASF.

Working in partnership with German manufacturing giant Siemens, along with Munich Technical University, and the University of Hamburg, BASF have produced a ‘greener’ plastic that could become an alternative to ABS in the future.

As part of a three-year project funded by the German Research Ministry, BASF and Siemens’ new “greener” polymer has similar properties to ABS, according to information on Siemens’ website.

The new polymer uses a mixture containing poly­hydroxybutyrate (PHB), which is made from renewable raw materials such as palm oil and starch. To give the polymer its flexibility (a quality that ABS is valued for), BASF’s polypropylene carbonate (PPC) is added, which consists of 43% carbon dioxide (by weight), which is obtained from power plant emissions using a separation process.

To demonstrate the commercial potential of the new polymer as an alternative to ABS, Bosch-Siemens-Hausgerate (BSH) successfully made a vacuum cleaner cover under series-production conditions.

Siemens’ researchers now want to work with BASF and BSH to evaluate the potential of replacing other plastics with CO2-based composite materials. If successful, this new polymer could become a viable alternative to prime ABS, reducing reliance on feedstock styrene as well as finding a useful home for CO2 emissions.

However, even this more environmentally friendly ABS alternative still poses some environmental concerns. Comments posted in response to a Design News article question the use of palm oil in the production of the new polymer, highlighting the detrimental effect that the harvesting of palm oil has on areas of tropical forests.

While Siemens’ new polymer may cut down on styrene usage whilst recycling CO2 emissions, it could potentially cause concern in other environmentally sensitive areas.

Using one harmful alternative to replace another could raise questions if the polymer ever goes to market as a viable alternative to prime ABS, and could damage its ‘green’ image. 

A second avenue of exploration that ABS consumers are actively going down in the European market is the use of recycled ABS in place of prime.

Recycled ABS has been available in Europe for some time, being used by manufacturers to replace extrusion and injection moulding ABS grades.

“[Recycled ABS] is open to any industry. Anyone that’s using prime ABS can use recycled,” Simon Calladine of UK-based waste plastic recycling specialists My PC Compounds Ltd. said.

As well as reducing waste and reusing old ABS, recycled product gives buyers the added bonus of saving up to approximately 20% off prime ABS prices, according to Calladine. Buyers expect to see some discount compared to prime to account for the ‘hassle’ of purchasing and using recycled product, Calladine added.

Prime injection moulding natural grade ABS is currently priced at €2,255-2,310/tonne ($2,967-3,039/tonne) FD (free delivered) NWE (northwest Europe), and extrusion grade natural €2,180-2,310/tonne FD NWE, according to ICIS.

European ABS recycling tends to be a localised affair. Converters are establishing their own collection systems with their customers, arranging for collection of waste product within certain catchment areas, according to one European ABS producer.

At present, there is no established Europe-wide collection and recycling scheme available for ABS.

Due to the nature of the recycled material, recycled ABS tends to find its use in parts that do not require the aesthetic value that prime ABS gives, or in non-critical or design-heavy areas, such as car door handles.

As a recycled polymer, however, there are limitations to ABS use. Certain industries, such as food packaging, specify hygiene and safety requirements that only prime ABS can give.

In addition, colouring recycled ABS presents challenges. Recycled ABS is largely black in colour. According to Calladine, it is hard to add colour to recycled ABS at the masterbatch stage of processing, which limits the products it can be used in.

Calladine adds that demand for recycled product, in the UK at least, was buoyant until recent months, when demand dropped off slightly, perhaps mirroring that of prime ABS. In November, virgin ABS saw 20-30% drop in demand, month-on-month compared with October, some European compounders said, because of drops in production in end-use markets such as the automotive industry.

It is unlikely that recycled ABS would pose a direct threat to prime grade ABS, mainly as the former can only come from the latter, and also down to quality and technical specifications limitations, like in food packaging as previously mentioned.

Going forward, there is no reason why prices of recycled ABS could not appear alongside that of prime if it the popularity of recycled product continues to grow. Price ranges, though, would have to be carefully considered due the diversity of specification recycled ABS can offer, Calladine cautioned.

In the current economic climate, it is pricing rather than environmental factors that pose the biggest challenges to ABS in the shape of cheaper prime polymer alternatives.

When asked what the biggest challenge to the European prime ABS market currently is, buyers and sellers agreed that competition is coming direct from other plastics, mainly polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS).

“White goods [producers] are always interested in using recycled ABS, but the bigger threat is coming from total replacement to PP. PP is a much more fragmented market,” a compounder and distributor of ABS said, giving buyers a wider range of sellers to choose from, compared to the relatively small number of producers of ABS.

Once again, however, the quality and aesthetic finish of ABS verse that of PS or PP will ensure there is always a market for prime ABS, regardless of price.

As players in the world of ABS work to come up with greener, and in terms of cost, leaner alternatives to prime grade product, it seems that for now, at least, virgin ABS still has a place in the market that only it can fill.

($1 = €0.76)

By: Matt Tudball
+44 208 652 3214

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