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There is rapid growth in the market for extrusion of bioplastic film, with consumers' interest in sustainability helping push the trend. Where the trend is not moving quickly enough for some governments, legal decisions are being made to propel the transition from petrochemicals to plastics based on renewable materials.

Matt Defosse

February 24, 2011

5 Min Read
Bioplastic film update: Lakeside chooses Mirel; Biodegradable versus “standard-but-sustainable”; Free webinar to answer

The global market for bioplastic packaging demand is forecast to achieve a 24.% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2010-15, according to a new report from PIRA International. For evidence, look no further than Lakeside Plastics Ltd., a film converter headquartered in British Columbia, Canada. Lakeside has been working with biodegradable plastics supplier Telles to develop a compostable bag product line based on Mvera B5002, a compostable film grade made from a proprietary blend with Mirel bioplastics. Mirel is the brand name of Telles' material. Telles is a joint venture between Metabolix Inc. (Cambridge, MA), a bioplastics developer, and food processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Company.

Under a supply agreement with Telles, Lakeside will purchase Mvera film grade plastic for use in large-volume applications including yard waste and consumer kitchen compost bags. The specific terms of the contract have not been disclosed. Lakeside has in-house capacity for film extrusion, printing, and bag conversion. The bags will biodegrade in industrial composting facilities.

(A document from bioplastics supplier Natureworks lists some industrial food composting facilities in the U.S. It's clear that there is room for many more if the finances support them. To date most are clustered in California, Texas, and Tennessee, and in the far northern tip of New England. The link to the document is broken but you can find it with a search engine using the phrase "Natureworks food composting facilities.")

"We are very excited with the superior performance of Mvera B5002 film in terms of strength, rapid composting ability, and that it meets or exceeds ASTM standard D6400 for compostable plastics," said Stuart MacDonald, chief operating officer with Lakeside. Bob Engle, Telles general manager, added that Mvera B5002 film has D6400 certification to a thickness of 288 µm (11 mil).

If demand won't drive the change, governments are doing so. In Italy, the federal government's ban on thin shopping bags based on standard plastics (mostly LLDPE) has caused a rush of business to the country's lone supplier of a biodegradable plastic, Novamont. Novamont was one of the first firms to enter the bioplastics supply realm and remains one of the market leaders. The company last month announced it had opened its first offices in North America, but one Novamont customer told MPW that the supplier is so busy on its home turf that one of the basic problems with the bioplastics supply world again has raised its head. Until the supply is sufficient to guarantee deliveries, many processors and brand owners refuse to specify a bioplastic. But until demand is sufficient, many bioplastics suppliers, quite naturally, refuse to invest in new capacity.

The supply is coming, though, as we reported early this week with the news that lactic acid supplier Purac and Indorama Ventures PLC, world's leading supplier of PET, are discussing plans to build a 10,000-tonnes/yr polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastics plant in Thailand, utilizing Purac's lactide with plans to expand to 100,000 tonnes/yr of production. Novamont has 80,000 tonnes of capacity, all in Italy, for its material.

Sustainability trumping biodegradability
Gerhard Margreiter, managing director of plastic packaging distributor natura packaging (Rhein, Germany), spoke with MPW last week in Nuremberg, Germany at his stand during the Biofach trade show there. By our count, during our 45 minutes at the stand, more than 25 people approached the stand with questions, often quite concrete ones, or with requests for samples. "The first two days of this show have been a madhouse," said Margreiter. "The crisis is past, retailers are investing more, and they want something new."

Magreiter's firm is a distributor of packaging, rigid and flexible, processed by a number of plastics processors, most in Germany and Austria. He claims Central European leadership in the ranks of distributors of packaging based on bioplastic. Although much of the packaging he sells is made from biodegradable plastics, he said the clear trend is the move away from biodegradable plastics to ones made from "standard" plastics derived from renewable resources, such as the polyethylene and polypropylene developed by Braskem that are based on ethanol derived from sugarcane. "Composting is only important in the food packaging segment because of food stores," he said, as these face a problem when they need to throw out rotten produce, as they often do. Vegetables and fruit packaged in paper or standard plastic containers need to be separated from the foodstuffs, whereas a biodegradable plastic package can be tossed into the same recycling bin as the rotten tomatoes. But for brand owners and stores outside the food industry, he said, the more important criteria have become the percentage of plastic in a package that is derived from renewable resources.

Film extruded from these standard-but-sustainable plastics typically offer better clarity and impact resistance than ones made from biodegradable plastics, said Margreiter, and also are more useful for stretch and shrink films. Not just a distributor, his company has expertise in the development of plastics packaging from these materials, and is now working on a shrink film based on them. No matter the bioplastic processed, he said there remain some tricks-of-the-trade that need to be followed. "The blown film die needs to be optimized" for these materials, he said. Also, most films made from biodegradable plastics are very thin, so a processor needs to ensure he has a windstill plant or his bubble will be flying all over the facility.   

Pose your own questions about extrusion of bioplastics to extrusion expert Allan Griff, an independent consultant, who next week continues our Extrusion Expert webinar series with his presentation, "Show me the green: Tips & tricks to extruding bioplastics." This free webinar on March 2 at 2 p.m. EST will offer you an hour of in-depth information on these materials and specifically on extrusion of them. Plus, if you have questions, Allan will answer them during the webinar. Click here for more extrusion webinar registration information.Matt Defosse

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