Phthalate-free plasticizer capacity is rising; can TPEs infringe on PVC’s place?

The recent announcement that plastics and chemicals supplier BASF plans to double its production capacity for its non-phthalate plasticizer Hexamoll to 200,000 tonnes/yr by 2013 is a clear sign that concerns about adverse health affects caused by phthalate-based plasticizers have changed the marketplace irreversibly. The controversy is not new, and nor are phthalate-free plasticizers, but the transition to greater use of these additives is gathering speed. 

According to BASF, the decision to double capacity is based on a strong increase in demand across all regions as well as the continued growth of demand for alternative plasticizers. While demand initially came mainly from manufacturers of toys and leisure articles, increasingly it is being used in medical applications and food packaging, reports BASF, including in medical devices such as blood bags, nutrition tubes, catheters and breathing masks.

But even applications such as PVC wall coverings are now being promoted as "phthalate-free." It can be debated whether brand owners' marketing departments are going overboard in their efforts to differentiate their products, but consumers and their spending patterns will answer that.  

For BASF this is the second significant capacity increase since it introduced the material in 2002. In 2007 the supplier raised supply of this plasticizer from 25,000 to 100,000 tonnes/yr. Production is at the company's HQ in Ludwigshafen, Germany.

BASF's announcement is at least the third such his year with regard to non-phthalate plasticizers. In February Eastman Chemical announced it had increased capacity for its own Eastman168 plasticizer, a material it has offered for more than 30 years, and Oxea Chemicals also has increased its capacity of these (our initial report on those here). In May Eastman then announced it had acquired Sterling Chemicals and planned to re-start that company's line for production of phthalate-free plasticizers. Eastman says demand for these additives is growing at 7%/yr in North America and Europe. 

Plasticizers are used to soften PVC, the established material for many flexible medical applications such as IV bags and medical tubing, but suppliers and compounders of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are aggressively pursuing this business. The pursuit has been in progress for years but recent announcements could accelerate the pace and success for TPE suppliers. Significant was news late last year that TPE supplier PolyOne and contract plastics welding processor Genesis have worked to optimize RF welding of TPEs; previously these low-dielectric-loss materials could only be heat sealed, which limited configurations to straight lines.

Rainer Diercks, president of BASF's Petrochemicals Division, commented, "This phthalate-free plasticizer plays a big role in human contact applications. Due to the disproportionately high demand and growing global demand for alternative plasticizers, we have decided to expand our production capacity once again. This will strengthen our market position and open up new opportunities for Hexamoll DINCH. Expansion in the form of a second production plant will enable us to supply our customers around the world more successfully and more reliably in the future."


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