April 30, 2003
Not far from where Giulio Natta help-ed found the Italian plastics in-dustry with the invention of poly-propylene, something of a rebirth is taking place. Novamont SpA, headquartered in Novara, Italy, is helping lead the development of plastics based on renewable resources.Catia Bastioli, who was originally charged with heading a group set up by Montedison to develop materials based on renewable resources, is now the general manager of Novamont, which became an independent company in 1996. Its staff includes 60 in Novara, another 40 at its manufacturing plant in Terni, Italy, and field personnel. "We are still small, but we are an international leader," she notes.Novamont's plant in Terni has a 12,000-tonne/yr reactor and two others with 4000-tonne/yr capacity, all producing granules of Mater-Bi starch-based copolymers (Dec 01 mp, 31; mpi, 44). A further 15,000 tonnes/yr of material are produced by licensees, in the form of expanded beads or "peanuts" for loose-fill packaging. The principal licensee is National Starch & Chemical Co., Monroe, NJ, which has its own network of sub-licensees. Around 25% of the loose-fill packaging market in the U.S. is already held by biopolymers.Capacity in Terni, until last year, was 8000 tonnes/yr, and another expansion will be needed by around the end of next year. Bastioli says the capacity of one of the smaller reactors can be tripled inside 6 to 8 months. "There is space to double capacity; we have to decide whether to put it there or elsewhere."Mater-Bi is an ideal material for sacks used to hold organic household waste in communities that have separate collection systems — a growing trend in Europe. "We have calculated that if disposal costs are more than €0.04/kg, it makes sense to use sacks in Mater-Bi rather than polyethylene," says Bastioli. Mater-Bi costs between €2 and €4/kg, depending on the grade, which is much more expensive than pe, but pe bags need to be separated from the waste and are usually burned.A company set up to make biodegradable materials from renewable resources could be seen as riding for a fall. Novamont certainly took a hit almost before it got started, by confusion in the market caused by suppliers of starch-filled pe, which marketed their materials as being biodegradable (all that happens is that the starch breaks the pe into small pieces). The Italian government even put a tax on bags not made of starch-filled PE. It took a special commission to establish that the claims were bogus. "It was a useful experience for us," says Bastioli, noting that companies are once again proposing such materials.Mater-Bi was originally proposed as a material for biodegradable bags. But Novamont's technology enables the production of materials with much broader scope. For example, it can play on other properties such as water solubility and permeability, while continually emphasizing the renewable aspect (although, technically, not everything in Mater-Bi is from renewable resources — grades contain between 40 and 95%-plus starch, and the remainder is mostly complexing agents and additives).Various films comprise around 70% of Novamont's business. These include agricultural mulch films (which can be made at under half the thickness of pe films since they don't need to be handled after use) and packaging films for fruit and vegetables. However, customers are also making thermoformed food trays and netting for fruits and vegetables, and Novamont has begun making foam block and corrugated sheet, monikered Wave by Mater-Bi, for packaging.Hewlett-Packard already uses Mater-Bi to line boxes used internally to transport computer boards, making use of the material's inherent antistatic properties. When the boxes reach the end of their lives, they are pulped, along with the liners, which then act as a filler in the reconstituted board. Polyurethane flexible foam supplier Recticel, in Brussels, has signed an agreement to distribute the new foam in the Benelux countries. There is also vast potential for Mater-Bi in breathable backing films for diapers, replacing laminates of microporous pe and nonwovens.
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