Bioplastics today, bioplastics tomorrow: major changes likely

By: 
October 05, 2009

During a webinar last week, Jim Lunt, a consulting engineer and one of the founders of NatureWorks, predicted some significant changes for the bioplastics market, with a trend and focus away from single-use throwaway applications towards more durable products.

Lunt made his presentation, Bioresins 101 for Film Extrusion, on a webcast hosted by Modern Plastics Worldwide and its sister publication, Injection Molding Magazine.  Lunt, managing director of Jim Lunt & Associates LLC, is an independent consultant whose bioplastics credentials include being instrumental in developing the technology ground floor on which NatureWorks, the largest supplier of bioplastics, is based.  He was recipient of the Presidential Green Chemistry Award in 2002 and is the co-inventor of more than 20 patents.

Lunt noted that, although it seems certain to remain a niche market, processing of bioplastics is predicted to grow from its 2007 level of about 262,000 tonnes/yr of material processed, to about 1.5 million tones in 2011. The materials are being helped along by legislation around the world, he said, citing the Japanese government’s goal that 20% of all plastics consumer in the country be renewably sourced by 2020. In Germany, biodegradable plastics are exempt from the country’s recycling directive until 2012, which saves about €1.30/kg for packaging processors and their customers. In the U.S. Energy Title 9 of the Federal Farm Bill demands each federal agency design a plan to purchase as many biobased plastics as practically possible. The federal procurement plan will be based on biobased content, price, and performance.
 
According to Lunt, the current use of bioplastics, overwhelmingly in single-use applications destined for composting facilities, eventually will be overtaken by the materials’ use in durable goods. ‘Bioplastics’ is a far-reaching term that includes not only materials based on plant starch or other renewable resources, but also more traditional, petroleum-based thermoplastics which have some of their feedstock replaced with renewably sourced materials. For example, Braskem in Brazil has developed a method to make polyolefins from sugarcane-based ethylene.
       
According to Lunt, the price of Braskem’s HDPE or LDPE, derived from sugarcane, still is about $0.80-$1.00/lb, about 20% more than standard polyethylene. Other bioplastics are more costly, in general: polylactic acid, for instance, runs about $0.85-$1.25/lb, while PHA from Telles costs about $2.50/lb on average, he said.

Lunt’s presentation covered substantially more ground, with the most interesting segment likely the live Q&A at the end from film and sheet extruders who attended the webinar. If you missed the broadcast but are interested in bioplastics, and especially in extrusion of these, then register for free in the lower-left hand corner at plasticstoday.com to hear and see the entire presentation. [email protected]

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