Dow Chemical on bioplastic Q&A

Here is a brief Q&A with Dow Chemical’s Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader, regarding the company’s views on bioplastic. Some of these will be included in my bioplastic article that will be published next week Monday, November 21 on ICIS Chemical Business.

As a background, Dow has partnered with Japan chemical firm Mitsui this year on sugarcane ethanol and bio-polyethylene plastic in Brazil. Feel free to read ICB’s latest article on the Dow/Mitsui JV.

Q: It seems like increasing branded companies are increasingly promoting the use of bioplastic, how are they benefiting from using bioplastics and has these already translated to increase in their demand/sales profit?

A: Brand owners are eager to provide consumers with packaging made from bio-based plastics because the use of those materials offers several potential benefits. Among those are reduced use of fossil fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions during the manufacturing of the packaging materials.

In each case those benefits need to be confirmed through the use of scientific methods such as the completion of a full life cycle assessment. If a particular bio-based material provides the right combination of performance attributes for a specific application then its use can provide meaningful environmental benefits as well.

Q: What are the challenges/complaints that consumer products and food/beverage companies relay to bioplastic producers/compounders when it comes to using bioplastic? 

A: Bio-based materials must meet criteria for performance and cost as well as provide a scientifically verifiable environmental benefit. As with materials that are not bio-based, not all materials are suitable for use in all applications. The needs of a particular application need to be met in each case, which means designing packaging for individual applications rather than simply picking a material and then using it across the board.

When materials are not drop-in replacements for existing materials they may require capital investments or significant changes in operating procedures, both of which are barriers to adoption. The application of sound scientific principles and use of fundamental criteria for consistently evaluating performance can help assure that the proper materials are selected for use.

Q: Do you see these branded companies paying for premiums for bioplastic? 

A: Yes, there are certainly cases where companies will pay a premium for improved performance. If a bio-based plastic offers meaningful environmental benefits and improved performance in use then it may command a premium in the market place.

It is worth noting that a material need not be bio-based to offer improved performance and environmental benefits. High performance plastics from conventional feedstocks – such as our current DOWLEX® LLDPE, ELITE® EPE, and AFFINITY® POP – may also provide lifecycle environmental benefits, for example by increasing the shelf-life of perishable food, which reduces the environmental burden associated with growing food that spoils before being eaten.

Q: Are there any particular type of bioplastics that already show high growth in terms of usage in consumer products/food/beverage packaging? 

A: The use of bio-based plastics is growing rapidly, but is currently limited by availability, performance, and cost. Drop-in replacements that minimize capital investment across the value chain are in particularly high demand.

Q: What important points will you advice for companies who are looking to use bioplastics for their packaging?

A: Consider bio-based packaging with the same criteria as used to evaluate all types of packaging. For example, does the packaging provide the needed product protection and marketability at good overall value? If a bio-based material provides excellent product protection and increased opportunities for consumer marketing then paying a premium to use that material will improve business results, which is something that we can all agree is good advice.

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Other recent “renewable chemical” updates from Dow:

  • Dow has developed soybean oil-based acoustical foam formulation under the the tradename BETAFOAM Renue. Dow said it is currently in trials with a major North American OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and will be commercialized starting December this year.
  • Dow has partnered with Solazyme on the development of algae oil-based dielectric insulating fluids (DIFs). Dow said this $2bn market represents more than 500m-gallon opportunity for the companies.Dow and Solazyme are expecting to soon start testing and scale-up trials for the algae-based DIFs. Commercialization is expected in 2013.
  • Dow has developed a range of impact modifiers and process aids for polylactic acid (PLA) that enable and extend the applications open to bio-plastics.

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