Bioplastics take root

By: 
April 29, 2010



The bioplastics industry is entering a crucial phase in its development that NatureWorks President and CEO Marc Verbruggen believes will fundamentally alter their reach and future, with the potential to not only change what they’re used for but how they’re made.

“I think we have a five-year window where we truly have to put biopolymers on the map,” Verbruggen says. “We’re in that sweet spot where the consumer wants green products but isn’t necessarily sure there are green products. We really have to grow that market space and that consumer connection as quickly as possible. As I say internally within NatureWorks, ‘If the time is not now, when is it going to be?’”

NatureWorks (Minnetonka, MN), which commercially launched its polylactic acid (PLA) biopolymer six years ago, is betting that the time for widespread growth is now, with plans being finalized to double capacity through a new plant. Speaking with MPW in March at the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) Global Plastics Environmental Conference, Verbruggen says the expansion will support recently launched products, including a compostable bag for Frito-Lay’s SunChips brand, as well as upcoming ones in a variety of end markets.

“Over the next six months, you’re going to see a number of product launches from global brand owners,” Verbruggen said, “so the pull clearly is there.” While he couldn’t say where the expansion would be, Verbruggen did say that at a minimum, the next plant will have 50,000 to 70,000 tons of production capacity. Assuming continued demand growth of 30%/yr across all its markets, NatureWorks, which last year completed a doubling of capacity to 150 million lb at its Blair, NE manufacturing site, would be selling out its current production output by 2013 or 2014.

Marc Verbruggen, NatureWorks CEO
Marc Verbruggen, NatureWorks CEO

Verbruggen admits that biopolymers’ recent growth, which has come in a down economy that even stymied plastics stalwarts like polyethylene and polypropylene, has been an anomaly, adding that the overall weakness of global finance does pose a hurdle to green plastics as they attempt the leap from niche novelty to resin mainstay.

“To go from where [bioresins] are right now to, let’s say, 10% of the plastics market, I firmly believe it’s going to be more an issue of capital availability than the market,” Verbruggen says. “The value drivers are strong—they’re not going to go away—so then it’s a matter of building assets, which are expensive, and how quickly can you do that. What’s you appetite for risk?”

Bioplastics from biorefineries
To continue on the path he sees, Verbruggen says that in addition to securing capital, bioplastics will also need a change in feedstocks, which he believes can come about as part of a broader shift in fuels. “It is my opinion that it only makes sense for [bioplastics] to switch to cellulosic feedstock as part of a larger biorefinery infrastructure,” Verbruggen says. “Whether it’s corn stover or switch grass or whatever these cellulosic feedstocks are, to switch that to a biofuel or a biopolymer, it’s also going to be an economies-of-scale game: the bigger, the better.”

In this model, Verbruggen theorizes that a cellulosic biorefinery, much like today’s petroleum ones, would devote the vast majority of its output to liquid fuels, with a small fragment, 5-10% perhaps, siphoned off for biochemicals and plastics. “[Large-scale biorefineries] should and will work,” Verbruggen says, “and the reason I say ‘will work’ is because governments all around the world are promoting them. Everybody sees the writing on the wall and so whether it’s the U.S. or whether it’s Malaysia or whether it’s some of the European countries, these cellulosic biorefineries will be there.” 

Government buy-in
When MPW spoke with Verbruggen, he was heading from Orlando and GPEC to Washington, DC for meetings with congressional leaders, many of whom, Verbruggen says, show bipartisan appreciation for biorefining’s potential.

“I think clearly the U.S. government has realized that having your economy depend on imported oil is not the smartest thing if you have a longer-term outlook,” Verbruggen says. “I speak with Democrats and Republicans, that’s one thing where they all understand. From that point of view, it’s fascinating. It’s almost like a once-in-a-lifetime moment, where I believe we’re going to see a true shift, and not tomorrow but over a five-to-ten-year time period, away from one feedstock to a number of different solutions.”

And from those feedstocks? “Twenty years from now, you’re going to be looking at biopolymers like you do traditional plastics today, where you have a wide range of commodity plastics, not niche plastics,” Verbruggen says, “with different properties, different performance, and different cost.”

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