Big potential for bioplastics packaging

Feliza Mirasol


Correction: In the ICIS Chemical Business story headlined “Big potential for bioplastics packaging” dated 27 April 2012, please read, in the penultimate paragraph … “Compostable plastics such as polybutylene succinate [PBS], polyketals and PHAs …,” instead of “… such as polysuccinic acid, polyketals and PHAs….” A corrected story follows. 

Bio-polymers get a strong head start on the market with bio-PLA, while new technologies are already on the horizon for innovative blends and uses


Danone is using Ingeo for its yogurt cups in Germany

Copyright: RexFeatures

The packaging industry represents a potentially lucrative market for bio-based plastics. Polylactic acid (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) and polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) are examples of polymers being developed from bio-renewable resources.

In packaging, PLA is positioned to compete mainly with polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and, to a limited extent, polystyrene (PS).

The global PET market, including polyester fiber, is estimated at 57.8m tonnes for 2010, according to ICIS Consulting. PET bottle-grade resins accounted for 16.9m tonnes.

However, PLA does not readily compete with PET in the bottle market because of poor barrier properties. Rather, PLA is primarily displacing PET in thermoforming applications with an addressable market of around 7% of all PET packaging, or just more than 1m tonnes globally, according to UK-based consultancy Smithers Pira.

“Assuming PLA can displace 20% of this volume gives a potential market of 200,000 tonnes by 2015. Of course, higher penetration rates over the long term are always possible, particularly if oil prices continue to increase and if the heat resistance or barrier properties can be improved,” says Jim Lunt, managing director of US consultancy Jim Lunt & Associates.

In comparison, PHA would have outlets in a number of industry segments, including agriculture, horticulture, anaerobic digestion and single-use food-service applications.

“We expect PHA to thrive in areas where degradation is valued in packaging – as is the case with these four segments. PHA is especially beneficial as a blend with other biopolymers – it can be combined with materials like PLA to increase resistance to high temperatures,” says Rick Eno, president and CEO of Metabolix, a US-based biosciences company. “The Freedonia Group [a US market-research firm] predicts global demand for bio-based, biodegradable plastics will more than triple, surpassing 1.1m tonnes by 2015. This demand is driven by brand owners and consumers who have become increasingly interested in using these materials in their products,” Eno says.

Total bio-PLA capacity today is primarily dictated by US-based NatureWorks, which has 350m lb/year (136,000 tonnes/year) of bio-PLA (sold under the trade name Ingeo) at its Blair, Nebraska, facility. This capacity will be doubled with the new plant NatureWorks is building in Thailand, which is scheduled to come on line in 2015.

The next-largest producer will be Netherlands-based PURAC, when its 75,000 tonne/year lactide capacity for bio-PLA comes on line this year, says Lunt.

“This gives a total potential PLA capacity of 355,000 tonnes by 2015. Other minor PLA players may increase this capacity to around 400,000 tonnes globally by this time. I am assuming that demand for PLA will increase overall by around 20%/year,” Lunt notes.

Currently, Ingeo has a strong and expanding presence in rigid and flexible fresh food packages such as clamshells and bags for pre-washed salads. In recent developments, Ingeo has moved into areas previously wholly filled by high-impact polystyrene (HIPS).

“The introductions of yogurt cups by Stonyfield Farms and Danone in Germany are examples of these new applications,” says Steve Davies, director of corporate communications and public affairs for NatureWorks.

In May 2011, France-based Danone announced that it had switched to Ingeo for its Activia brand yogurt in Germany. The company said that the switch to this “technologically innovative material” will improve the product’s packaging carbon footprint by 25% and use 43% less fossil-fuel resources compared with the previous packaging, according to a life-cycle assessment study conducted by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, based in Heidelberg, Germany. Danone was the first company to switch to an environmentally friendly packaging polymer for a leading yogurt product in Europe.

Activia was previously packaged in PS. The change to Ingeo, or bio-based PLA, represents approximately 80% of the total volume of all Activia products in Germany. Danone plans to expand the use of the Ingeo-based packaging to include other products in its Activia line, such as drinks, yogurt fruit puree and the larger consumer formats of these products, which account for the remaining 20%, the company said. Other new solutions for Ingeo include multi-layer film bags for potato chips, other snacks, and pet food.

“Brand owners and retailers increasingly embrace the sustainable packaging movement, and this is having a profound impact on the growth of Ingeo biopolymer in these applications,” Davies says.

In February 2012, NatureWorks formed AmberWorks, a joint venture with US-based bio-succinic acid producer BioAmber, to develop new performance bio-based polymer compositions for commercialization.

“The AmberWorks joint venture provides new compounded performance Ingeo grades made from both lactic acid and succinic acid green building blocks. NatureWorks is now offering samples of developmental grades aimed at thermoforming and injection-molding processes. In the future, each new grade will offer fresh characteristics to be applied to solving an application,” says Davies.

NatureWorks will be able to bring a host of new solutions to market which will meet the performance needs of the application while providing a more sustainable option. This higher sustainability will be based on renewable materials and will have a lower carbon footprint than 100% petroleum-based solutions, notes the company.

Development is also underway for newer bio-polymer offerings to the packaging industry. For example, Danone signed a partnership in March 2012 with Avantium, a Netherlands-based biotechnology company, to develop bio-based polyethylene furanoate (PEF) for plastic bottles via Avantium’s YXY technology. PEF has the potential to replace PET.

“PEF reportedly has better heat and barrier properties than PET. Avantium has just started up its PEF pilot plant with the intention to initiate commercial production of PEF within three to four years,” notes Lunt.

The YXY technology is a chemical catalytic technology that converts carbohydrates from plants, grains, energy crops, lignocellulosic matter, waste streams, waste paper or agricultural residues into a wide variety of bio-based polymers, according to Avantium.

In mid-December 2011, US beverage giant Coca-Cola partnered with Gevo, Virent and Avantium to develop a 100% plant-based PET resin for Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle packaging, projected to be ready by 2016.

“PepsiCo has also announced its goal of introducing a 100% renewable PET bottle, but no details as to how or with whom are presently available. Naturally given sufficient volumes at the right economics and an improved sustainability profile, 100% bio-PET would be the obvious next step,” says Lunt.

“Some juice and milk bottles, plus shampoo/vitamins and others are made from materials such as high density polyethylene [HDPE] and polyvinyl chloride [PVC]. HDPE produced 100% from renewable resources is already available from Braskem in Brazil,” Lunt says. “Solvay has, for some time, announced a commercial route to bio-PVC but I do not believe this is presently being made commercially. I question the production of PVC from renewable resources, since the monomer – vinyl chloride – is known to affect human health, but PVC as a plastic is a versatile material,” he adds.

On March 12, Metabolix granted NatureWorks a license to develop new bio-polymer blends of PLA with certain other polymers, including polybutylene succinic polymers. NatureWorks will utilize Metabolix’s patent to achieve the desired effects of its new blend, which will be commercialized through the joint venture it has with BioAmber.

“The goal of Metabolix’s agreement with NatureWorks is to ultimately gain broader adoption of bioplastics,” Eno says.

NatureWorks is also exploring new bio-polymer avenues of applications. For example, in late March, polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) producer Altuglas International, a subsidiary of France-based Arkema, presented the new bio-based alloy Plexiglas Rnew resin compounded with Ingeo at the National Plastics Exposition in Orlando, Florida, US.

“This family of Ingeo-based Plexiglas Rnew compounds will be utilized in such durable applications as signage, lighting, consumer products, transportation, and large and small appliances, just to name a few,” NatureWorks’s Davies says.

“We just came back from Innovation Takes Root, the NatureWorks organized global bio-polymers forum. There were eight technical tracks and more than 50 speakers. Nearly every talk was on innovations being made by companies all over the world who are using Ingeo as a basis for new solutions. The point is that NatureWorks is developing the resins and supply chain partners are building on that in ways that only a few years ago were unimaginable,” he adds.

“If you step outside the bottles market there is a tremendous amount of activity in bio-based polymers. Butyl rubber, polypropylene [PP], acrylics, nylons, polyisoprene and soy-based urethanes represent a few of the initiatives to replace existing petro-based materials with renewable materials. Compostable plastics such as polybutylene succinate [PBS], polyketals and PHAs are also under very active development,” says Lunt.

In addition, several companies are aggressively pursuing technologies to provide the feedstock for these bio-based materials from biomass as opposed to pure food-based sugars. The bio-products area is rich with new ideas and technologies, Lunt adds.


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