In the late nineties, when DSM developed a castor oil based polyamide, the company quietly shelved the project, seeing little potential in the new plastic. And in 2000, when DuPont Chairman & CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr., first announced goals for DuPont to derive 25% of its revenue from renewable resources by 2010, the industry snickered. Now, almost 12 years later, that same industry is no longer laughing.
Major manufacturers of feedstocks and materials all over the world have become believers, helped along in some cases by tax breaks and other incentives, and are investing hard cash in bio-based business. This is not to say that green materials have become big business. But they have definitely become business.
Bioplastics are starting to look like a good place to be to many raw materials producers - and distributors. As an attendee of the recent European Bioplastics Conference confided over coffee: "We don't do anything in bioplastics - yet. I'm here to find out what and whom we need to know to get into this business. Specifically, we'll be looking at who to partner with."
In Europe, advances in this area have partly come from the industry, and partly resulted from the efforts of the European Union to promote research and technology. The Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development have traditionally been the EU's main instrument for funding research in Europe. Under these programs, numerous initiatives have blossomed, one of which is the Biobased Performance Materials (BPM) program in the Netherlands.
This program is set up as a consortium in which industrial partners and knowledge centers collaborate on specific projects aimed at the development of new biopolymers, feedstocks for bioplastics and at applied research aimed at improving the properties of existing bioplastics. Specifically, the program is committed to achieving usable, marketable results. Recently, the consortium published a brief overview of some of its projects in 2011.
Here are a few:
In the BIOCRES project, researchers are working to develop a styrene-free biobased composite resin in which the polyester resin is derived from renewable resources. The researchers foresee little problems with developing a bio-based polyester resin; the problem is finding a replacement for the reactive solvent styrene. Currently, vegetable oils are being looked at. The project is a collaboration across the entire product chain, from raw materials producers, including, in this case, Cargill, to end manufacturer.
ChitoSmart is a project that is looking at the development of food packaging with antibacterial properties based on chitosan, a derivative of the compound chitin, which is found in fungus cell walls and the shells of insects and crustaceans. To do so, more knowledge is needed about how exactly chitosan works its antimicrobial magic and whether it works against the microbes that cause packaged food to spoil. Another challenge is to process the chitosan into the film in such a way that it remains in the polymer matrix. Ultimately, the aim is to extend shelf life and to reduce food waste. One of the companies involved in this project is Heinz.
Another project is FEASIBLE, which investigates the sustainability of the different bioplastics, and their feasibility to replace conventional plastics. Standard data on bioplastics are often lacking, as are life cycle and carbon footprint analyses. To defuse accusations of greenwashing, claims must be able to be verified and backed up by standards and certificates. First, however, more research is needed to collect the requisite data on these materials.
All of these are projects with potential for tangible results. And fortunately, despite austerity measures throughout the EU, funding for this and other European research programs will not be discontinued. In fact, the EU's new € 80 billion program for research and innovation, Horizon 2020, will more than double the funds available for research to promote the transition to a bio-based economy. This has undoubtedly helped to trigger the current industrial interest in biobased materials. As always, money talks.
However, in the end, let's keep in mind that research is not where the money is. Europe is great at R&D and at building pilot plants, but until now, implementation has been a weak area. In the past, Europe has been at the forefront of important developments, losing out later to countries able to move more quickly and cheaply into the implementation phase. Where biobased plastics are concerned, Europe is leading the way in development. Now, it has another chance to keep manufacturing here as well.
Let's not waste it.