While materials like polylactic acid currently get most of the attention, bioplastics experts believe that eventually the majority of bio-based resins will be conventional resins - such as polyethylene and polypropylene - made from renewable resources rather than from petroleum.
“The next generation of bio-plastic resins is already coming,” said Jim Lunt of Jim Lunt & Associates. “There is increasing interest and development in making both existing and new monomers from renewable resources. We are transitioning from oil-based to renewable feedstocks.”
Braskem , for example, is expected to begin making sugar-cane based ethylene that will be turned into polyethylene at its plant in Triunfo Brazil, starting in August. The plant will be the first to produce plastics on an industrial scale using a 100% renewable feedstock.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble has already announced plans to use Braskem’s sugarcane-derived PE in selected packaging on its Pantene Pro-V, Covergirl and Max Factor products.
Brian Balmer, performance materials industry principal for Frost & Sullivan, said polymers like PE and PP behave the same regardless of whether they are made from oil or bio-based feedstocks. While some end-users may be reluctant to use new materials, “there are all sorts of things that people are developing to make existing polymers from renewable resources”.
Lunt noted at the recent Emerging Trends in Plastics Packaging conference in Atlanta that, right now, India Glycols is making bio-derived ethylene glycol for incorporation into PET, both Cargill and Dow have some soy-based polyurethanes, and a number of companies, including Myriant Technologies and DNP Green Technology in Montreal are making succinic acid.
Myriant is scheduled to begin building a $50m bio-based succinic acid facility in September.
“We are looking at a different route for materials and chemicals as we move forward,” said Michael Mang, business development manager at Myriant. “Companies are focused on making chemicals from renewable resources to deliver products with a smaller environmental footprint, and they are going after established markets so it becomes an easy adoption for the customer.”
Bioamber, a joint venture between DNP Green and Agro-Industry Research & Development in France is building the first biobased succinic acid plant in Pomacle, France.
“People are using bio-based technology to green existing polymers,” said Millis. “There is a change in focus away from new materials into new technologies for existing materials.
Lunt said the drive to replace oil as a feedstock will continue — whether that means making PE from sugarcane, PET from biomass, nylon 6 from lycine, or PU from soy-based alcohols.
“Creating traditional resins from renewable feedstocks is very much where bioplastics is growing,” Lunt said. “I don’t see the plastics industry having a whole group of new plastic polymers it has never seen before.”
Growth rates for bioplastics are projected at 15-20% for 2011, and long-range growth forecasts range anywhere from 12-20% to 30-40% annually, depending on how quickly new bio-resins and their markets develop.
“There is a lot of emphasis on PLA today, but the bioplastics market is much more diverse than that and it is hard to see where PLA will fit in long-range, if you look at what’s going on” in engineered resins and resins from renewable resources, Balmer said.
“[PLA’s] short-term market growth will be dependant on capacity and supply, as demand still exceeds supply,” Balmer said. Longer-term, PLA will remain a niche polymer, split fairly evenly between packaging and fiber applications.
Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of NatureWorks, thinks otherwise.
“PLA-type production should be able to growth 30% for the foreseeable future,” he said. “People will be looking at PLA as a viable alternative purely from an economic standpoint. We are only limited by the ability to put assets on the ground.”
Verbruggen said the market will depend on the cost of various bio-based resins.
“With our economies of scale, we are willing to fight that battle to see who has the lowest-priced biopolymer,” Verbruggen said.
Regardless of which bio-resins ultimately thrive, there is agreement that the global bioplastics market has reached a critical juncture.
Lunt said commercializing traditional resins made from non-petroleum resources will spur faster growth of bio-resins, since suppliers will not need to sell customers on new resins with new properties.
“As a manufacturer, I don’t have to build a new plant and I know the properties because it is the same chemical,” he said.
He cautioned, however, that conventional polymers made from renewable resources still have to be made at the right price, and that “it is still in the early days for a lot of those materials”.
“The companies doing this have to do it in a cost-effective way,” Lunt said. “If it is at three times the price or 50% more, it is not going to be impressive.
“Whether it is competitive or not may depend on how many chemical steps you need to take to make it, and whether there is an endless supply of the new feedstock,” Lunt said. “Just having a renewable building block is not a guarantee of success. It needs to be price competitive and environmentally sound.”
Ultimately, Lunt thinks there will be a number of conventional polymers made from renewable resources, and the feedstock will vary, based on the location of the plant.