December bioplastic updates

Here are some bioplastics news I received late last month while I’m struggling with my now 3-week old cold. But first, Purac announced today that it has developed a polylactic acid (PLA) compound comparable to the common thermoplastic acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) in terms of heat stability and impact strength.

Purac’s new bioplastic combines the company’s L-Lactide and D-Lactide monomers technology. The PLA compound can be used in injection molding applications.  The company is currently building a 75,000 tons/year Lactide plant in Thailand which will start in the fourth quarter of 2011.

Meanwhile, Cardia Bioplastic announced yesterday its collaboration with consumer goods company Nestle in bioplastic packaging. Unfortunately, not much information was disclosed due to Nestle’s sensitive commercial nature, according to Cardia. We’ll probably hear more about it when Nestle is ready to launch its bioplastic-encased product/s.

Also yesterday, NatureWorks said its Ingeo biopolymer will be distributed further in the Japanese market via a new deal with BP (Bio-based Plastic and Packaging) Consulting. BP said it is also developing several unique Ingeo-based products using modifiers made of inorganic or food ingredient substances.

In terms of R&D, scientists at the University of Bath (UK) and Tel Aviv University (Israel) are also working to improve PLA’s properties by developing a new chemical catalyst for PLA processing. The scientists aim to make PLA more heat resistant and stronger in order to expand its use in engineering plastics (e.g. automotive market).

And to add to the growing debate of ‘how green are bioplastics?’, a study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh indicate that plant-based plastics are not necessarily better in terms of environmental impact compared to petroleum-based materials when analyzing both plastics’ life cycle.

According to the researchers, biopolymers rank highly in terms of green design such as biodegradability, lower toxicity (throughout the production supply chain) and use of renewable resources but they exhibit relatively large environmental impacts from production itself if considering the farming methods for feedstock – just think about the energy, fertilizer, pesticides that farming typically uses…

Of course, you have to consider what type of biopolymer and petroleum-based polymer were included in the study as well as the type of feedstock used for the biopolymers. There are also varied LCA analysis tools that the researchers can use. Unfortunately, I can’t access the full study so I hope the readers can and make their own decision about it.

I did read one report that noted 12 plastics — 7 petroleum-based polymers, 4 biopolymers (PLA included), and one hybrid – were included in the study. The researchers performed LCA on each polymer’s preproduction stage to gauge the environmental and health effects of the energy, raw materials, and chemicals used to create one ounce of plastic pellets. They then checked each plastic in its finished form against principles of green design, including biodegradability, energy efficiency, wastefulness, and toxicity.

The biopolymers rank 1, 2, 3, and 4 based on green design metrics but rank in the middle in terms of LCA metrics. Polyolefins rank 1, 2, and 3 in the LCA rankings and complex polymers, such as PET, PVC, and PC place at the bottom of both ranking systems.

NatureWorks announced last month a sort of rebuttal with a peer-reviewed “Ingeo eco-profile” article published in August. The article documents the energy and greenhouse gas emissions input and output of Ingeo production including planting, harvesting, fermenting plant sugars and resin production.

“The data provided in this report is only valid for Ingeo (polylactides produced by NatureWorks in Blair, Nebraska, USA) and not for polylactide production in general. The life cycle inventory data for polylactides that might be produced elsewhere will be different due to different raw materials (sugar or starch source) and raw material production practices, different technologies for processing these raw materials, different fermentation and polymerization technology, and different background data for electricity/fuel mixes used.” – NatureWorks

Finally, here is a nice video courtesy of NBC Washington featuring various bioplastic products showcased at the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioprocessing event held in July.

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