Bioplastics are an extraordinary place to be right now. Recent reports from Ceresana and Freedonia both predict extremely robust growth for the sector, as consumer demand for sustainable materials continues to rise and bioplastics prices start to come down. Have bioplastics finally reached the turning point?
Bioplastics are already rapidly making up for their less than stellar performance in the past. And 2012 might well be the year in which the bioplastics industry truly comes of age. Key drivers will include improved product performance and improved availability - two obstacles, which, in the past, have hindered the acceptance and use of these materials - and price parity with oil-based polymers, another major hurdle, which bioplastics producers are working to overcome. The high costs of research and development have kept the price of bioplastics high, and volumes low. As demand increases, availability becomes more reliable and performance rises, bioplastics prices will fall. The question is, however, where will the growth be? Biosourced? Biodegradable? Drop-ins or novel materials?
To date, biodegradable plastics continue to dominate the bioplastics market. However, technical developments and product innovations are set to change this trend. Over the coming years, non-biodegradable plastics based on renewable feedstocks will become increasingly important players in the bioplastics market.
Looking ahead at what we might expect for 2012, one area that looks especially promising is that of PLA technology. Both biosourced and, if desired, biodegradable, this technology is developing at an extremely fast pace. New blends and additive are increasingly improving the thermal, barrier and mechanical properties of this biopolymer. The commercialization of non-biodegradable, heat-resistant, durable PLA based on L-lactide and D-lactide monomer technology will gain momentum, as will the development of second and even third generation PLA. Purac is leading the way in this area, and has reported that it is already at an advanced development stage for third generation PLA, based on a gypsum-free lactic acid process that is entirely carbon neutral.
Another area that is set to expand rapidly is that of the so-called "bio" drop-in materials. These are bioplastics produced from drop-in commodity chemicals based on renewable feedstocks that perform in exactly the same way as their petrochemical variants. Use of drop-in materials involves less risk due to their compatibility with existing manufacturing and recycling streams. This has led major corporations such as Tetra Pak, Johnson & Johnson and Danone to adopt the use of - in this case -Braskem's biobased PE packaging in a number of products. Drop-in technologies for polyethylene and PET are already available; polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene will start to appear on the market over the next year or two. Customers have shown themselves willing to pay a premium for the biobased materials, while materials producers welcome the idea of reducing their dependency on volatile oil-based feedstocks. Ultimately, however, as competitors of conventional polymers, the price of the drop-in products will also have to be competitive. Whether large-scale commercialization of bio drop-ins is an economically viable route is something that remains to be seen in the future.
At the same time, novel materials will continue to emerge, and those able to demonstrate tangible benefits compared to existing materials - bio or otherwise - will find their niche in the market. Avantium's furanics-based PEF, with built-in superior thermal and barrier properties to PET, is a material to watch.
However, the single most dominant development in the next few years will be the shift from food crop biomass to nonfood alternatives. Consumers have made it very clear that biopolymer production should not compete with the world's food supply. Unilever, for example, is just one of the major corporations to have refrained adopting bioplastic packaging precisely for this reason. The use of next generation biomass such as crop waste, municipal solid waste, forest waste offers an attractive combination of low cost and stable prices. And, as the market increasingly rejects the use of corn and sugarcane-based feedstocks to produce bioplastics, companies who do not adapt are very likely to find themselves out of the game altogether.