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Sheet and film applications eyed eagerly in bioplastics community

Processors and suppliers interviewed at the European Bioplastics conference in Germany early this month made clear they see a bright future for extruded applications made from the various bioplastics commercially available or in late-stage development. The market for these remains a small niche so far but OEMs and brand owners increasingly are keen on having at least some applications transitioning from standard thermoplastics to ones that are based on renewable resources, biodegradable or both.

Which OEMs and brand owners? Just in the past two weeks 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. 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 Plasticstoday.com 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, she explained.   

Demand is especially strong in Europe, added Haug, with both rigid and flexible products almost equally popular. Increasingly, she said, the company is being asked by consumer products and E/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 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 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-tonnes/yr 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-likely large plastics suppliers but also potentially processors or newcomers to the industry-samples up to 1000 kg or larger, with the company intending top scale-up the production technology to plants with capacity of 60,000 tonnes/yr. The pilot plant is being used to demonstrate production of at least three distinct types of PLA, which he describes as "quick" crystallizing material, "slow" crystallizing material, and anamorphous grade. The first will find use in fibers and filaments, the second in thermoformed and bioriented films plus injection moldings, and the amorphous grade in heat-shrinkable films, foamed applications, and other specialties. With residual monomer content less than 0.2% in the chips, Hagen says there will be no fumes released at the extruder die. Chips are spherical and free flowing, sized from 2-4 mm.

Dietrich Albrecht, strategy and business development manager in Europe for Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., says 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. 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, catering trays, and others. It already has European Union food-contact approval.

Beginning in early 2011, Mitsubishi will bring two new bioplastics to market but with these targeted at a very different set of applications. Called Duration (DURable BIOplastics), these will be positioned to compete with acrylic (PMMA) and polycarbonate (PC) in optical/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 up to 92%.

Last year Mitsubishi built a 300-tonne/yr pilot plant for the Durabio material, and starting in 2011 it offers samples for customer testing. "We're launching two grades in Q1 of 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
Smart customers have caught on to the "greenwashing" strategy of fake or undocumented sustainability claims used by some companies. Andy Sweetman, global marketing manager of sustainable technologies at Innovia Films, a €400 million/yr films processor, sees the result in customer behavior. "As a processor of both standard materials and bioplastics, I see the double standard. For our OPP (oriented polypropylene), customers ask about properties and cost. For our biomaterial (cellulose-based films) they ask us about properties and cost, and compostability, and biodegradability and every standard there is." Sweetman also serves as chairman of the European Bioplastics board.

Even if you can talk the talk and walk the walk, where can you sell you bioplastic-based film and sheet? Bioplastics' demand in North America is actually larger than that in Europe, but much of that can be traced to paper coating, not a traditional plastics process, notes Bill Kerr, director of global distribution at Cereplast, a supplier of materials based on PLA. "But we still see greater demand in Europe for traditional plastics processors," he added. Keeping demand growing will require continued pull from OEMs and brand owners, he reckons. "A processor won't switch to a more expensive material without being asked to do so. But a Maybelline or other company already marketing high-end products, and proud of its sustainability scores, will often see the sense in packaging that also qualifies as 'eco'."

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