Comparing the bioplastics industry to a child's development, it's at the crawl stage at most, according to Harold Kaeb, secretary general of European Bioplastics, the pan-European association representing the growing group of companies investing in the development, supply or processing of these materials. But, he asserts, that's a perfect place for it to be. "It's probably a good thing that so much bioplastics' capacity isn't coming on-stream until 2012-2015," he told MPW at the conference. The delay, while potentially frustrating for some processors and their customers, gives the industry time to further develop and to establish some of the necessary parameters to ensure its success, such as a symbol that will be commonly accepted to indicate a package's biodegradability or other 'green' characteristics.
Many other issues still need to be cleared as well. Probably no issue is as critical as continued consumer education regarding the materials. "Consumers want to do right, but it's often not clear what the right thing (to so) is," commented Andy Sweetman, chairman of European Bioplastics' board of directors as well as global marketing manager of sustainable technologies at Innovia Films, a €400 million/yr (about $600 million/yr) films processor. He urged processors and suppliers in the audience to help dissipate growing consumer skepticism regarding companies' claims of sustainability. "Make sure if you make a 'green' claim, that you can independently substantiate it," he said. His firm has about 90,000-tonnes/yr capacity of bioriented polypropylene (BOPP) film and another 20,000-tonnes/yr capacity for its NatureFlex cellulose-based films.
Sweetman also encouraged processors who had tried bioplastics in the past and been disappointed to give them another shot. "Ten years ago at a bioplastics conference, you'd see test tubes and piles of granules. Now, you see parts everywhere," he said, referring to the rapid pace of development. Much of that development is occurring as processors learn how to mix-and-match different types of bioplastics to improve on a compound's or part's properties. "We're copying what has been done with standard plastics," he noted. For one of Innovia's customers, for instance, the processor designed a standup pouch that included a transparent NatureFlex layer, a metalized layer of the film, a layer extruded from the Mater Bi starch-based material supplied by Novamont, and a zipper seal that also was formed from a bioplastic.