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Is their bark bigger than their bite? Yes, many bioplastics suppliers mastered PR before they actually honed their process, but that doesn’t mean they won’t continue making a big impact on this industry.

Matt Defosse

January 13, 2011

8 Min Read
Much ado about bioplastics

Is their bark bigger than their bite? Yes, many bioplastics suppliers mastered PR before they actually honed their process, but that doesn’t mean they won’t continue making a big impact on this industry.

The reasons for this impact are clear, and they stem from the world’s largest brand owners and OEMs. These multinational companies truly do care about carbon footprints and sustainability, as soon these will be yardsticks against which they will be measured and even financially penalized if they fall short. Bioplastics likely will remain a niche within the plastics industry for many years to come, but it’s a niche with a bright future.

Processors and suppliers interviewed at the European Bioplastics conference in Germany last month made clear they see a bright future for applications made from the various bioplastics commercially available or in late-stage development. Which OEMs and brand owners are driving this? Just in the past four weeks in our daily e-newsletter, NewsFeed, we’ve reported on sustainability plans, all with a heavy emphasis on increased use of bioplastics, recycled plastics, or both, at Ford, Unilever, and Nestlé.

Better have your sustainability facts straight, recommends Innovia’s Andy Sweetman.Some processors see the demand already. Interviewed at the European Bioplastics event, Sonja Haug, market manager for sustainable products at plastic packaging giant Huhtamaki, told MPW that her company is seeing “strong demand growth—not just because [a product is made of] bioplastic, but also because of the properties of these products.”

In many applications, a package with water vapor permeability would be a no-go, but for produce packaging, this attribute only adds to brand owners’ reasons to specify polylactic acid, a starch-based plastic, for this packaging, Haug explained. Demand is especially strong in Europe, she added, with both rigid and flexible products almost equally popular. An executive at a leading U.S.-based bioplastics supplier told MPW that demand for the materials remains highest in the United States, but that much of this stems from its use in paper-coating applications, rather than in typical plastics processing.

Increasingly, said Haug, Huhtamaki is being asked by consumer products and Ehttps://www.plasticstoday.com/E OEMs to develop PLA-based packaging for them; the processor uses additives to improve the moisture barrier of the material for these. One of the applications she highlighted at her company’s stand during the conference in Düsseldorf was a thermoformed cover for a toothbrush’s blister pack, using a polylactic acid (PLA) film to replace PVC in the application.

More capacity from more 
efficient plants
PLA remains the 800-lb gorilla in the bioplastics realm, and this appears likely to remain the case for at least the next few years, judging from expansion plans and investments in technology. Plant engineering company Uhde Inventa-Fischer, which is among market leaders for design and construction of plastics polymerization plants, started its own 500-tonnehttps://www.plasticstoday.com/year pilot plant for production of PLA in Guben, Germany in October 2010.

“There have been three problems slowing the growth of the PLA industry,” explained Rainer Hagen, product manager at the company. “There’s been a lack of PLA polymerization technology. There’s been a lack of lactic acid, and there’s been a lack of enough PLA as a consequence of those first two.” The company hopes to solve all three with its new PLA plant technology, he said.
The pilot plant will offer interested customers samples up to 1000 kg or larger, with the company intending to scale up the production technology to plants with capacity of 60,000-tonneshttps://www.plasticstoday.com/year. These customers are likely large plastics suppliers, but also could be processors or newcomers to the industry out of the food processing sector (Cargill is the muscle behind NatureWorks).

The pilot plant is being used to demonstrate production of at least three distinct types of PLA, which Hagen described as “quick” crystallizing material, “slow” crystallizing material, and an amorphous grade. The first will find use in fibers and filaments, the second in thermoformed and bioriented films plus injection moldings, and the third, the amorphous grade, in heat-shrinkable films, foamed applications, and other specialties. With residual monomer content less than 0.2% in the chips, Hagen said there will be no fumes released at the extruder die. Chips are spherical and free-flowing, sized from 2-4 mm.

Introducing new bioplastics aimed at packaging as well as durable goods is Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. Dietrich Albrecht, strategy and business development manager in Europe for the supplier, said his company has worked closely with extrusion systems manufacturer Reifenhäuser to validate its GS Pla grades on that manufacturer’s extruders—for instance, in extrusion of thermoformable sheet.

Not to be confused with PLA, GS Pla is a biodegradable polyolefin-like polybutylene succinate. “It can be thermoformed in a standard PP [polypropylene] tool,” he said. The material’s heat deflection temperature is up to 95°C. The supplier anticipates applications in produce packaging and catering trays, among others. It already has European Union food contact approval.
Beginning early this year, Mitsubishi will bring two new bioplastics to market, but with these targeted at a very different set of applications. Called Durabio (DURable BIOplastics), these will be positioned to compete with acrylic (PMMA) and polycarbonate (PC) in opticalhttps://www.plasticstoday.com/transparent applications. Testing continues to determine the materials’ stress-cracking behavior, he said. Its transparency is close to PMMA’s and better than PC’s, he said, with its impact resistance better than PMMA’s and also approaching that of PC. Light transmission is to 92%.

Last year Mitsubishi built a 300-tonnehttps://www.plasticstoday.com/year pilot plant for the Durabio material, and starting this year it offers samples for customer testing. “We’re launching two grades in Q1 2011,” he said. “Both have a bit higher density than both PMMA and PC. Flexural strength [of Durabio] is better than both.”

Have your sustainable ducks in order
With so many materials entering the market amid so much hype, it’s easy for a processor to be confused. For some processors and others, the solution has been a “greenwashing” strategy of fake or undocumented sustainability claims. Smart customers have caught on to these, noted Andy Sweetman, global marketing manager of sustainable technologies at Innovia Films, a €400 millionhttps://www.plasticstoday.com/year films processor.

“As a processor of both standard materials and bioplastics, I see the double standard,” he said. “For our OPP [oriented polypropylene], customers ask about properties and cost. For our biomaterial [cellulose-based films] they ask us about properties and cost, compostability, biodegradability, and every standard there is.”

Bottler plans major expansion for bioplastics bottles
Captive extrusion blowmolding capacity at Italian lemon juice bottler Polenghi Group is about to be expanded as the company, which now runs six EBM lines, plans to process about 10 million of its lemon-shaped bottles per year by 2015.
Marco Polenghi, whose father founded the company in 1976 with a lemon juice bottling service run out of his garage, said yearly turnover at the firm has reached about €40 million. The company’s captive processing capacity is sufficient for all of its current requirements, but he expects demand to grow even further as the company rolls out its lemon juice squeezed from 100% sustainably grown fruit.

“We want to help a customer lead a sustainable life without changing his habits,” Polenghi explained. That mission also led the company this year to begin blowmolding bottles made from polylactic acid (PLA), with it sourcing the material from NatureWorks LLC. The brand owner sources the Ingeo-brand PLA from NatureWorks but has developed its own compound, said Polenghi.
“We replaced polyethylene but it was not an easy task,” he added, saying processing issues as well as the need to develop a PLA-based compound able to withstand the sun’s rays, lemons’ acidity, and other challenges made the transition a difficult one. This is the first extrusion-blowmolded PLA product seeing commercial use in Europe, according to NatureWorks.

The company takes its sustainable manufacturing even further than just bio-grown lemons and plant-starch-based packaging, noted Polenghi. Even before it switched to PLA bottles, the company began using PLA stretch sleeves over its PE bottles. This year the closures for the bottles also will be molded of PLA, making for a 100% biodegradable, compostable package. Its factory and energy for its processing is derived from solar energy.

The bio-grown lemon juice packed in PLA bottles, sleeved with PLA labels, went on sale in France in September 2010 and sales start in its domestic market this year. The eco-juice is priced 30% higher than the company’s standard juice, he said, but added that sales so far and consumer polls have confirmed this is a price the market will bear. The shelf life of the bio-juice is nine months, three less than the standard-packed juice, but Polenghi said retailers accepted the reduction. “We trust this bio-bottle,” he concluded.

Nestlé using Cardia Bioplastics for rigid packaging applications
Nestlé, the world’s largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company, plans to work with Cardia Bioplastics and that company’s bioplastics to reduce the environmental impact of as-yet unidentified packaging. The scale of the agreement also is not being made public. Cardia recently announced plans to expand its production site in China.

Anne Roulin, Nestlé’s global director of packaging, told MPW that her company is testing the materials in a range of applications but mainly in rigid plastics packaging. She would not offer further details on the scale of the agreement except to confirm that there is a signed contract between the companies. 

Once Nestlé completes its tests, the packaging made from Cardia’s materials will be processed for the main part by the brand owner’s packaging suppliers and not via captive processing, Roulin said.

The plastics supplier’s managing director, Frank Glatz, said, “Collaborating with Nestlé presents an exciting opportunity to develop high-performance packaging with lower environmental impact. . . . Our proprietary multilayer flexible film and rigid packaging developments are important offerings in meeting demanding packaging performance requirements.”

Cardia supplies compounds called Cardia Biohybrid that are based on a blend of thermoplastic starch with standard thermoplastics, as well as offering a compostable plastic. —Matt Defosse

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