Bioplastics: 5 years later  

Posted by Big Gav in

MundoMaterial has a look at how the bioplastic sector is coming along - Bioplastics: 5 years later.

In 2006 the number of “real” producers was reduced. There were several producers of starch based blends and Novamont was (and still is) the European market leader when considering production capacity. However, in the field of PLA production there have been important changes. In 2006 the sole producer was NatureWorks. It was the only company with an industrial production and there were only projects from other companies that were studying the possibility of using lactic acid to produce PLA. Nowadays NatureWorks continues to be dominating the PLA market, with a capacity of 140,000 tonnes per year, but there are other producers with smaller capacities and with plans to increase it in the next 2 years. Some examples are:

* Hisun, 5,000 tonnes per year
* BioAmber, 2,000 tonnes per year
* Futerro, 1,500 tonnes per year

5 years ago bioplastics were new products, with a totally different chemistry, that have to find their way within the market of traditional plastics produced from fossil sources. The market was dominated by PLA, starch based blends and the big promise were PHAs. There were cases of traditional polymers produced from renewable sources, but in low volumes. Today there are 2 differentiated types of material, the “classic” bioplastics aforementioned and traditional plastics that instead of being produced from oil are derived from renewable sources.

It is worth mentioning Braskem cases, a big Brazilian petrochemical company, that is producing ethylene from sugarcane. Ethylene is then transformed into polyethylene or partially renewable PET. The current capacity of Braskem is 200,000 tonnes per year of polyethylene, overtaking NatureWorks and hence becoming the biggest bioplastic producer worldwide. Braskem has already announced it will also produce renewable PP, in a plant that will be operative in 2013 with a capacity of at least 30,000 tonnes per year.

Braskem’s advantage, similarly to other producers of traditional plastics from renewable sources, is that the market for its products is already there and its products only need to replace fossil-based alternatives. Even more, depending on the behaviour of the oil and sugarcane price, its products may end up having the same price as conventional plastics or even cheaper. Although this is still uncertain, due to price fluctuations in the price of natural resources like sugarcane, corn, etc. in the last months.

Some bioplastics have been in the market for more than 5 years, but since 2006 several factors have been improved that have helped them to increase their market penetration. On the one hand, there are now tested commercial applications that act as success stories for new clients. Furthermore, the greater number of applications has allowed compounders and converters to test different grades and processing technologies. Even those applications that have been a bit of a fiasco have been a way to improve the materials or know their limits.

Another advance worth highlighting is the increase in renewable content in bioplastics. A good example is Novamont: 5 years ago it mixed starch with biodegradable polyester from fossil sources. Today it has the required technology to produce polyester from vegetable oils, maintaining the biodegradability of the final product and increasing the renewable content. Cargill, as well as owning 100% of NatureWorks, has been developing renewable polyols to produce polyurethane foam since 2005. The renewable content in the final product ranges from 5-25%. Cargill has focused part of its efforts in increasing such percentage. It recently announced its collaboration with Momentive to use one of its additives to achieve greater renewable content.

The truth is that changes have been happening throughout the chemical industry, not only in the plastics field. The chemical industry has shown great interest in renewable sources. Some of the reasons are:

* Sustainability starts to be appreciated by the final consumers, becoming an added value to the product and a marketing tool.

* Oil price has increased, turning renewable raw materials into a more competitive alternative.

* Oil supply has demonstrated to be unstable, becoming an increasing factor in decision making.

* The technology behind renewable products has left the lab and has been tested at industrial level.

Therefore chemical companies are not only interested in semi-finished products, like PLA or other bioplastics, but also in building blocks or additives to improve the resin properties. We now see some companies basing their offer in the production of monomers, like Purac that plans to become a supplier of lactides for PLA producers. The number of plastic converters including bioplastic products in their portfolio has also multiplied and compounders supplying the market with blends of traditional plastics with bioplastics or with tailor-made additives is also increasing. Furthermore biofuel producers are starting to focus in going beyond ethanol and are developing methods to obtain more molecules from their biorefineries. Something that could be particularly important in the USA, where the biofuel production receives government help and where we see the first movements towards that help being extended to biochemicals other than biofuel.

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