Plastics proliferation transitioning to bioplastics boost

August 5, 2018 |

IHS Markit published a plastics report saying that the market value for biodegradable polymers exceeds $1 billion and will rise sharply by 2023 thanks to increased plastic regulations and bans in Western Europe. But it’s not just Europe that we are seeing bans on plastic. Multinational companies like Kraft, Starbucks, McDonalds, Marriott, Disney and more are all jumping on the anti-plastic bandwagon as consumers demand more responsible action from their favorite brands and products. And it’s not just IHS Markit that is optimistic about the future of bioplastics.

So what will replace the plastic bags, straws and ketchup packets? That’s where it gets interesting. While some companies are looking to use what we already have – recycled plastic – as a solution, others are getting even more innovative with all sorts of new bioplastics as alternatives. The funny thing is they aren’t even alternatives really, since they could completely replace plastics…and some companies are on a roll to get there.

Beyond recycling

While Kraft is looking at making its food packaging more recyclable, reusable or compostable, others are going beyond that and looking at creating a totally new way of looking at food packaging with biobased materials. As reported in The Digest in July, a consortium is trialing the use of seaweed sachets for fast food condiments, led by Skipping Rocks Lab. The sachets are made from alginate and are biodegradable.

In July, the Digest reported that a flexible plastic alternative for food packaging made from tree cellulose and chitin nanofibers (from crab shells) is a viable option. The bioplastic was flexible, transparent and compostable along with gas barrier properties making it perfect for food packaging.

Major players

Much has been happening with bioplastics beyond the research lab, however, and is now found in actual products around the globe.

With all the recent hype about straw bans by Starbucks, Disney, Marriott, and others, NatureWorks (a joint venture of Cargill and PTT Global Chemical) and Sukano already has biobased straws covered. As reported by The Digest in September 2017, additive and color masterbatch firm Sukano produced high-performance, compostable drinking straws using NatureWork’s Ingeo-brand polylactic acid bioplastic. Straws are currently produced from polypropylene, and any biobased alternatives must meet a number of functional requirements. Sukano was able to reduce PLA’s brittleness to avoid rough edges during straw production. And, by adding melt enhancers, Sukano increased PLA’s dimensional stability and added flexibility, so the straws would not crack at high temperature.

“At NatureWorks, we are helping rethink plastics,” says Steve Davies, Commercial Director at NatureWorks Performance Packaging. “The replacement of conventional oil-based polypropylene by Ingeo™ in drinking straws is just one example of how bioplastics can help address sustainability, while still providing the high performance material required for this application.

Avantium has also made huge strides with bioplastics with its YXY technology which converts plant-based sugar into chemicals and plastics, including 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid, a precursor to the promising bioplastic polyethylene furanoate.

The company is now safely emerged from its celebrated IPO, and is embarked on the development of the first commercial plant project with its JV partner BASF — so, its been a big period and even more critical thresholds lie ahead for Avantium. In fact, they just announced their first half of 2018 financial results which look promising with a 12% growth in revenues so far this year. The Avantium/BASF renewable plastics joint venture is looking up too, after a delay was announced back in January.

In April, the Digest reported that DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland opened their joint pilot plant for producing furan dicarboxylic methyl ester. Made from fructose, FDME can be used to produce high-performing, renewable plastics. One of the first FDME-based polymers under development by DuPont is polytrimethylene furandicarboxyate (PTF), a novel polyester also made from DuPont’s biobased 1,3-propanediol. In bottling applications, PTF is a 100% biobased alternative to polyethylene terephthalate that enables lighter-weight, more sustainable, and better performing bottles.

California-based Origin Materials is another company making bioplastics a reality with their furanic chemicals. Instead of making the plastic-building chemical the traditional way using oil, they use plant-based materials like corn, wood chips and cardboard residues. The main product their chemical is currently being used for is in the making of plastic water bottles.

Another major player, TOTAL Corbion PLA, a joint venture of energy producer TOTAL and lactic-acid producer Corbion, recently launched a stereocomplex PLA reinforced with glass fiber for use in a broad range of industrial applications, including those that require a material to withstand temperatures close to 200°C. The stereocomplex PLA has long, regularly interlocking polymer chains to enable higher heat resistance than standard PLA. New application possibilities include biobased replacement for PBT and PA glass fiber reinforced products, as reported in The Digest in May.

“Over the past decades, the benefits of full stereocomplex PLA have been studied by universities and R&D departments on a laboratory scale,” Stefan Barot, Senior Business Director the Asia Pacific, tells Plastics Insight. “Now, Total Corbion PLA is the first company to scale up this technology and make it available for a broad range of industrial applications. The technology enables full stereocomplex morphology not only in the lab environment but also in commercial production facilities”.

TOTAL Corbion PLA also plans to start up a world-scale polylactic-acid facility in Thailand by the end of 2018. The U.S. accounts for the bulk of production for these polymers, but Thailand, with its proximity to growing markets in Southeast Asia, its expanding bio-economy, favorable investment climate, stable government, and access to cost-effective sugarcane feedstocks for fermentation, is becoming an increasingly important contributor to the biodegradable polymers market, the IHS Markit report said.

Italy-based biotech company Novamont is taking bioplastics seriously, now requiring a 40% minimum threshold for bio-based content in all of its MATER-BI compostable bioplastics, not just in Italy and France where those targets have been established for 2018, but across the board in the company.

Not without challenges

As amazing as bioplastics sound, they have some challenges still to overcome. For one, many bioplastics are often touted as compostable but many cities and regions don’t have suitable industrial composting facilities or composting programs.

Demand, while increasing, is still thought of as a challenge as well, according to Marifaith Hackett, director, specialty chemicals research at IHS Markit and the report’s lead author. “For various reasons, which may include consumer confusion regarding bio-based plastics versus biodegradable polymers, there is not as much demand for these more sustainable plastics as you might expect, despite heightened public awareness of the plastics waste issue,” Hackett said. “In addition, suitable disposal options for products made from biodegradable polymers are often lacking. The cost of establishing the infrastructure necessary to support their collection and composting remains a barrier to demand growth.”

Legislation and plastic bans are definitely helping the bioplastics industry, but not all places are on board. “More legislation is likely coming in Europe or at the E.U. level, and if that occurs, we could see major changes in this industry and pushback from producers of traditional plastic products,” Hackett said. “The last time we at IHS Markit assessed the global demand for biodegradable polymers, we noted the U.S. was the largest driver of demand growth for this segment, but due to legislation, Europe is by far the leading demand center. Europe is the place to watch, as Europeans are particularly motivated to reduce marine litter.”

Bottom Line

Bioplastics have made plenty of progress in recent years, and we are hopeful on it becoming more mainstream. The IHS Markit report clearly sees the demand and production rising. “Biodegradable plastics, which are largely starch-based compounds or polylactic acid (PLA)-based materials, have become more cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics and the demand is growing significantly, particularly in Western Europe, where environmental regulations are the strictest,” said Hackett. “However, the demand for these biodegradable polymers is still a drop in the bucket when you compare it to demand for traditional plastics such as polyethylene (PE).”

“The properties and processability of biodegradable polymers have improved, allowing the use of these materials in a broader range of applications, but legislation is the single most important demand driver for these plastics,” Hackett said. “Restrictions on the use of non-biodegradable plastic shopping bags in Italy and France have led to a significant increase in the consumption of biodegradable polymers in those countries, and we expect European countries will continue to lead in legislative restrictions.”

In contrast, Hackett said, biodegradable polymer use has grown more slowly or stagnated in places that lack mandates. “Growing consumer awareness and activism regarding environmental issues could certainly increase the market for biodegradable plastics,” said Hackett.

Optimism abounds, however, with the current market value of biodegradable plastics exceeding $1.1 billion in 2018, and potentially reaching $1.7 billion by 2023, according to IHS Markit’s report. Things are surely looking up for bioplastics.

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