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Bioplastics highlights: a last look back at 2016

Bioplastics highlights: a last look back at 2016
Although just a tiny niche in the plastics industry, in 2016, bioplastics managed to push their way into the industry’s consciousness as never before. Let’s have a look back at just a few of the more compelling developments that helped shape the course of events this year in the bioplastics industry.

New Plastics Economy

2016 kicked off with the launch of a report entitled ‘New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics’ at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which outlined a revolutionary new approach to managing the global plastics flows, and in particular, the global plastic packaging flows. The report, compiled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation called for the application of circular economy principles to these flows, which could transform the plastics economy and drastically reduce negative externalities such as leakage into oceans.

In this ‘New Plastics Economy’, the focus would be on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics; drastically reducing leakage of plastics into natural systems, in particular oceans; and decoupling plastics from fossil feedstocks. In the report, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation declared it would establish an initiative to act as a cross-value-chain global dialogue mechanism and drive the shift towards a New Plastics Economy, a promise it has since lived up. The Foundation has established a three-year initiative to “build momentum towards a plastics system that works” through application of the principles of the circular economy. The initiative brings together key stakeholders from across the plastics packaging chain to re-think and re-design the future of plastics, starting with packaging., and since the launch, the number of participants has grown steadily. In January 2017, the New Plastics Economy will present its latest research findings to business and government leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Novel biopolyesters, a new bioplastic and –finally! – bio-PP

This year, a number of innovative biobased plastics also made the news:  Avantium, a Dutch biochemical firm headquartered in Amsterdam that is pioneering a totally new biopolyester called polyethylenefuranoate, or PEF, finally announced that it was going to start construction on a new 50k t/year reference plant for the production of  furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a precursor of PEF. The announcement contained one surprise: the new reference plant will be operated as a joint venture with German chemical giant BASF and will be located at BASF’s Verbund site in Antwerp, Belgium. The aim, said the companies, is to build up world-leading positions in FDCA and PEF. The potential is huge and if they succeed, today’s PET bottle may well become obsolete – although they will have competition from polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF), another novel biopolyester with vastly improved gas barrier properties compared to PET. DuPont Industrial Biosciences and Archer Daniels Midland Company jointly developed a fructose-based furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME), which, combined with DuPont’s proprietary Bio-PDO, produces the new biopolyester.

PTTMCC, the joint venture between PTT and Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation is constructing the first biobased Polybutylene succinate (PBS) plant in the world, which is scheduled to go into operation in 2017. A biobased and biodegradable replacement for polyethylene, Bio-PBS decomposes naturally - no composting facility needed - in soil into water and carbon dioxide. Bio-PBS is highly compatible with fibers -  it penetrates easily into pores and around fiber, yielding excellent adhesion to cup stock paper – and can take temperatures up to 100oC. Bio-PBS been hailed by the industry as the long awaited biobased solution for coated paper packaging, barrier packaging, coffee capsules, fiber and injection molding applications.

Lastly, Finland’s Neste caused quite a stir only recently with an unofficial announcement that they would be launching a bio-polypropylene product sometime next year, which apparently is the true reason behind their recently announced partnership with IKEA. Braskem, known for their sugar-cane-based polyethylene,  tried long and hard to get bio-PP off the ground, without success. Neste has reportedly has developed a shorter process route and will “prove production capability” next year, said a spokesman from the company. The company is likely to locate the plant in Europe, he said, “near a site that utilizes diesel as feedstock.”
“We can do it,” he said. “We could fill a steam cracker with renewable hydrocarbons today.”

Greenhouse gas not all bad

2016 was also the year that CO2 officially joined the ranks of sustainable feedstocks. The  Ford Motor Company (Dearborn, Michigan) became the first automaker to formulate and test new foam and plastic components using carbon dioxide as feedstock.

The new foam is formulated by Novomer, a New York-based company that utilizes carbon dioxide captured from manufacturing plants to produce innovative materials. Through a system of conversions, Novomer produces a polymer than can be formulated into a variety of materials, including foam and plastic that are easily recyclable.  If the new foam lives up to its promise, said Ford, we could see the new biomaterials in Ford production vehicles within five years, for example in seating and under

the hood applications, potentially reducing petroleum use by more than 600 million pounds annually.

And in June, Germany-based Covestro, inaugurated the world’s first commercial production plant for CO2-based polymers in Dormagen, Germany in June 2016. The plant uses carbon from CO2 to manufacture a new type of polyol, which are core building blocks for polyurethane foam. The company shipped its first CO2-based product earlier this month, officially marking the start of production in the new plant.

Speaking of greenhouse gas, PLA producer NatureWorks is also investigating the possibilities of producing its Ingeo material from what it calls third-generation feedstock: methane. The company has made a USD 1 million investment in a new laboratory at the company’s Minnetonka headquarters in Minnesota, USA, to commercialise the fermentation process for transforming methane into lactic acid, the building block of Ingeo PLA. It’s a gamble, but one that not only serves NatureWorks’ strategic interests in feedstock diversification; if it works, it would yield a structurally simplified, lower cost Ingeo production platform, opening the market for competitively priced PLA. At the company’s Innovation Takes Root event this year in Orlando, CEO Marc Verbruggen predicted that “if we succeed, no one will ever build another factory that uses sugar as a feedstock again”.

A competitor for NatureWorks

This year, too, another PLA producer entered the market – to the delight of NatureWorks, said Verbruggen. “Customers want to know that there is more than one supplier in the market,” he said. “Competition will allow us to grow.” The Netherlands-based Corbion launched its Luminy PLA portfolio, comprised of standard PLA and innovative high heat resistant PLA resins. Interestingly, Corbion also announced that it was looking at feedstock options other than first-generation food crops. The company said that it was investigating second-generation solutions, such as inedible biomass.

Corbion also announced it was partnering with France’s Total on the construction of a new PLA polymerization plant with a capacity of 75,000 tons per year at Corbion's site in Thailand. The new joint venture includes the existing lactide (PLA monomer) production unit at that site. Corbion will supply the lactic acid necessary for the production of the PLA and the lactide.

Goodbye to all that

Sadly, the industry also saw the departure of one of the more visible bioplastics players from the market in 2016. PHA manufacturer Metabolix (Woburn, Mass.) announced in July that is was eliminating approximately 45 positions in its biopolymer operations and corporate organization, and “pursuing the sale of its biopolymers business assets”. "This is a dramatic restructuring and an unfortunate but necessary step to bring the Company forward with a new strategy based on what we believe are the most exciting and promising technologies in our portfolio,” said Joseph Shaulson, president and CEO of Metabolix.

What’s ahead?

Growth, if the recent figures from European Bioplastics are anything to go by. Production capacity is set to increase from around 4.2 million metric tons in 2016 to approximately 6.1 million tons in 2021. Bioplastics are a growing, innovative industry that can play a key role in the transformation to a bio-based circular economy. Yet, says the organization: “Despite these advantages, the data shows that the overall growth of the global bioplastics industry is currently being slowed down by the low oil prices and a lack of political support for the bio-based economy.”

Let’s try and change that in 2017.

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