Making a Dent in 2012 and Beyond

Why a surge in demand for bioplastics will drive increased volumes
By Bryan Sims | November 21, 2011

There was a time about 30 years ago after two debilitating energy crises of the 1970s when bioplastics represented 15 percent of the global plastics industry. Today, bioplastics account for less than 1 percent of the 230 million tons (460 billion pounds) of polymers generated globally. Why? It comes down to price and performance, according to Keith Masavage, chief of strategy and operations for Biobent Polymers, a division of Univenture Inc., headquartered in Marysville, Ohio. The company produces a line of biobased polypropylene and polyethylene resins from inedible soy meal using a Battelle-developed process. “When people did start feeling more pressure from ecogroups, lobbyists and consumers to have more ecofriendly products, people came out with [bioplastics], but they always tended to have a fairly high price tag and they tended to be bioplastics that were made with just fillers,” Masavage tells Biorefining Magazine. The price was high, the performance was low, and the market shrunk. “The real panacea for this industry is a bioplastic that has some level of renewability and has performance on par with petroleum-based resins and can do so with competitive prices,” he says. “We’re trying not to have to invent or expose people to new technologies or new processing techniques that have never existed before. We literally want this to be a kind of a drop in-and-go. I think that’s really where the industry needs to go.” Enter today’s bioplastics: not just crude fillers, but sophisticated biobased polymers that match petroleum plastics in chemistry and performance. 

As the price of oil shows no signs of declining, ancillary factors like consumer appeal for sustainable products and packaging, human health concerns coupled with favorable governmental policies likely will drive a surge in global demand for bioplastics in the coming year. As a result, the next decade will see a fundamental shift in global polymer production with a new set of biobased capacities to come online. In a report released earlier this year, industry association European Bioplastics forecasted global bioplastic production capacity to surpass 1 million tons this year with production to more than double from 2010 to 2015. In addition, the report indicated that bioplastics would total 1.7 million tons by 2015, up from around 700,000 tons in 2010.

Central to this growth is the rapid expansion of bioplastics into an ever-increasing number of applications, ranging from beverage bottles in the packaging segment to keyboards in the consumer electronics segment. Depending on the application, the different types of bioplastics are processed in polymers that are either biodegradable such as starch-based plastics or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) and/or biobased, nonbiodegradable commodity plastics such as biobased polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

According to Massachusetts-based global market analyst firm BCC Research, the global biodegradable polymers market is expected to reach 932 million pounds yet this year and increase to 2.5 billion pounds by 2016 at a compound annual growth rate of 22 percent for the five-year period. The market reached 771 million pounds in 2010. The packaging segment accounted for 70 percent of the market in terms of total volume in 2010. This sector reportedly will reach 656 million pounds this year and should increase to 1.7 million pounds by 2016, according to BCC Research.

Although the outlook for bioplastics looks promising, cumulative annual projected growth rates for bioplastics should be taken with a grain of salt due to its size relative to the petrochemical-based polymer market, according to Jim Lunt, managing director for Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, a consultant firm that specializes in the polymer, fiber, foams, thermoplastic elastomers, films and molded products industries headquartered in Wayzata, Minn.

“The reason that you’re seeing such high growth rates goes back to the fact that the industry is so small,” Lunt explains, providing the applied analogy, “If you have one penny and you make two pennies, then you’ve grown 100 percent.”

Market Share Showdown

According to Lunt, the existing conventional plastics market is divided into five primary segments: polypropylene, polyethylene, polystyrene, PET, thermoset urethanes and thermoset polyurethanes, all of which are becoming targets for biomaterials. The first-generation of bioplastics like NatureWorks LLC with its biobased polylactic acid, and starch-blend resin manufacturers like Cereplast Inc., Novamont, Biome in the United Kingdom, to name a few, are dominating the bioplastic market, accounting for nearly 90 percent of the entire bioplastic market combined between them, according to Lunt.

NatureWorks currently owns and operates a 300-million-pound-per-year bioPLA manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb., where it produces its trademarked Ingeo brand of bioplastic. Now 50 percent owned by PTT Chemical Public Co. Ltd., Thailand’s largest chemical producer, Steve Davies, NatureWorks’ global director for marketing and public affairs, says the company has its sights set on building a second PLA production facility together with PTT Chemical in Thailand, slated to come online by 2015.

“With our current growth—20 to 30 percent this year—it’s clear to us we need more capacity to meet the market demand in the next two to three years,” Davies says. While bioPLA has established a global presence as NatureWorks’ first platform, Davies says, “We never intended that being all that we look at.”

Another major bioPLA contributor is Dutch-based Purac, which continues to make strides in the global market. Purac, a subsidiary of global bakery ingredients supplier CSM, currently has five lactic acid production units globally, including a facility owned and operated by Purac in Blair, Neb. At a capacity of 150 million pounds per year, the plant produces lactic acid through a sugar-based fermentation process. Previously, the Nebraska facility was a joint venture between Purac and Cargill’s North American Corn Milling Division.

According to Francois de Bie, Purac’s global marketing director of PLA and biobased building blocks, the company saw rapid growth of PLA-based products this year and expects to see increased growth in 2012, much of which is expected to occur in Europe. “For 2011, the growth versus 2010 was in excess of 50 percent,” de Bie says. “With many key brand owners now actively using PLA, we expect this high growth rate to continue.”

For Cereplast, the company believes regulatory restrictions in areas such as outlawing plastic bags will drive global demand for bioplastics. Cereplast entered into seven distribution agreements in Europe since the beginning of 2011. According to Nicole Cardi, vice president of marketing and communications, the surge in demand for bioplastic materials in the region has been fueled by new governmental policies, which started with restrictions on the use of traditional plastic bags and is now moving toward changes in legislation on use of flexible and rigid packaging. “As these laws are passed, European manufacturers need to identify alternatives to comply with these new mandates,” Cardi says, adding that the U.S. could follow suit soon. “The ban on plastic bags is becoming more common and widespread in the U.S. That said, an increasing number of cities and municipalities will need to consider alternative materials for providing bags to their customers.”

The extension of first-generation PLA and starch blends, according to Lunt, are biobased PHAs, such as what Telles, a joint venture between Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Metabolix, is producing. The companies have a 50,000-ton-per-year plant in Clinton, Iowa, where it manufactures its Mirel brand of PHA-based polymers. Lunt thinks PHAs will struggle heading into next year as the average selling price for PHA is about $2.50 per pound. In contrast, PLA sells for around 85 cents to $1.10 per pound in the U.S.

The remaining 10 percent of the bioplastic market, according to Lunt, consists of “others.” Those that fall under this category would be DuPont’s trademarked brand of renewable polytrimethylene terphthalate (PTT), Sorona, Coca-Cola-Heinz’s Plant Bottle, BASF’s EcoFlex, Brazilian oil and gas firm Braskem’s sugarcane-derived polyethylene, soy-based polyol for making ecofriendly poleurethanes, and so on.

Trends to Watch

Until now, most plastics have been in single-use compostable and disposable products. In fact, statistics from European Bioplastics suggest that durables will account for almost 40 percent of bioplastics this year compared with approximately 12 percent in 2010. With the advent of biobased polyethylene and some of the soy-based polyols, Lunt expects to see an increasing amount of durable products coming to market in 2012. “The trend in the bioplastics industry will be to move from these single-use durables and PLA, which will still exist and capture markets, toward a trend of making an existing plastic from renewable resources cost-effectively that’s exactly the same as the plastic people use today,” Lunt says.

The inertia anticipated to thrust this trend, according to Lunt, will be due in large part to the ever-growing synergy between the bioplastics segment and the advanced biofuels and biochemical industries. For example, Colorado-based isobutanol developer Gevo Inc. formed a partnership with Torray Industries Inc. to produce paraxylene, a direct precursor to terephthalic acid production, which accounts for about 70 percent of PET’s monomer component. Gevo also formed a partnership with Lanxess to produce biobased butyl rubber. Another is Madison, Wis.-based Virent Energy Systems Inc., which announced earlier this year it had successfully converted plant sugars into biobased paraxylene at its 10,000-gallon-per-year demonstration facility in Madison. The company said it intends to have commercial-scale paraxylene production online by 2014.

Another side effect brought on by the tightening confluence between the bioplastic and advanced biofuel and biochemical industries is the myriad of new biobased chemical monomers in development that are aimed at replacing petroleum-derived chemicals with renewable molecules. Companies like Dutch firm Avantium have discovered a route using its furanics-based platform, called YXY, to make methoxymethylfurfural (MMF) and other hydroxymethlyfurfural (HMF) ethers from glucose and fructose. The company has another catalyst that transforms the ethers into furan-based dicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a biobased chemical that can be reacted with ethylene glycol to make polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which can be used as a renewable replacement for making PET. According to Avantium CEO Tom van Aken, FDCA can also be used to make polyamides, plasticizers and coating resins, adding that, “everywhere you see terephthalic acid you can use FDCA basically as a green replacement for it,” he says.

Other emerging biobased building blocks that could see increased visibility in 2012 for their biopolymer applications, Lunt says, include the rising interest in biobased succinic acid to make polybutylene succinate (PBS), which is compostable and can be blended with PLA and starch blends. Companies involved in this area include BioAmber, Roquette Freres and DSM, BASF and Purac, Myriant Technologies, PTT Chemical, Mitsubishi Chemicals and others. Not only can succinic acid be used to make PBS, it can also be used to make adipic acid, a valuable precursor for making 6,6 nylon, and for making butanediol. “Succinic acid markets are already known and so is PBS, but they’re not used a lot today. But if it were renewable and cost-effective, it will become a player,” Lunt says.

With increased volumes of new biobased building blocks expected to contribute to the production of more biopolymers, several bioplastic resin manufacturers see bioplastic resin innovation driving away from using starch-based feedstocks to using second- and third-generation inputs such as algae. Both Cereplast and Biobent have conducted trial production runs using algae in their respective line of bioplastics and both look to continue this shift in 2012. Cardi says Cereplast is seeing an increased demand for resin grades that are suitable for durable applications such as with its line of Hybrid Resins. “Cereplast algae bioplastics have the ability to absorb and minimize greenhouse gases from the industrial process, creating up to 45 percent fewer greenhouse gases than traditional plastics,” she says, adding that the company has partnered with an accessories company that recently launched an entire line made from Cereplast’s algae bioplastics.

Masavage says shifting to nonfood feedstocks like algae enables Biobent to not be tied exclusively to soy for its biobased resins. “If the biomaterial contains a significant amount of protein, it will work in our process,” he says. “And guess what has a lot of protein? Algae. We can take algae and we can make resins out of it the same way we do soy meal.”

Some, like Waltham, Mass.-based Novomer, see value in an abundant nonbiomass material for producing polyethylene carbonate and polypropylene carbonate, the result of reacting carbon dioxide with ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, respectively. According to Peter Shepard, executive vice president of polymers for Novomer, the company sees global opportunities for introducing coating resins based on low-molecular-weight polymers, noting that he envisions a potential application being the replacement of bisphenol A-based epoxy resins in can coatings.

“There’s no silver bullet to any of this,” Shepard says. “It’s going to be a mix of solutions and a variety of technologies where each one will play a small role in improving the sustainability of how we conduct our lives.”
Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine
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