Despite its history, bioplastics remains a niche industry

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Plastics News file Esposito

Headlines about bioplastics practically write themselves. “Bioplastics market growing,” “Bioplastics take root,” “Bioplastics set to bloom,” etc.

That’s a good thing, since Plastics News has produced a sizable body of work on those products over the publication’s 25-year history. The term “bioplastics” already has appeared in PN at least 40 times so far in 2014 alone, often in stories focused on firms making those resins or making products made from those materials.

The concept of making plastics from renewable materials — mainly crops such as corn or soybeans — seems to have gained new life in recent years as sustainability has become more of a buzzword. By using organic material as a feedstock, bioplastics avoid the environmental spectres of oil and gas — more common plastics feedstocks. Some bioplastics also can be biodegradable, thus removing those products from the waste stream and saving precious space in landfills.

The idea of bioplastics is not a new one. Some of the earliest plastics — in the late 19th century — were plant-based cellulosics that soon were used to make rayon fibers and cellophane films. Moving forward, Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford was championing soybean-based plastics in auto parts in the early 1940s.

The notion was so widespread that it even was mentioned in a pair of classic mid-century movies. In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” (1946), Jimmy Stewart’s character convinces a high school pal to re-open a factory in their hometown to make plastics out of soybeans. In “Sabrina,” (1954), Humphrey Bogart’s character invests in a method of making plastic from sugar cane.

But being able to make bioplastics and being able to make them profitably have proven to be two different tasks over PN’s 25-year history. We’ve often received glowing introductory press releases about startup companies or university research labs that have found new ways to enter the market. But the first time we hear about these efforts often is the last time we hear about them. Very few of them even reach full commercialization.

Price and performance often are cited as reasons why bioplastics have fallen short of their true potential. These factors were identified earlier this year in a market study released by Cleveland-based research firm Freedonia Group Inc. “Large scale conversion to bioplastics will not occur until price parity with conventional plastic resins is achieved,” analyst Kent Furst wrote.

It’s somewhat alarming that the high oil prices of recent years — and accompanying high resin prices — haven’t done more to open the doors for bioplastics. The materials remain niche products, holding right around 1 percent of the global market. Low-priced, shale-based natural gas may make it even tougher for bioplastics to make inroads in the years ahead, as new gas supplies and new resin capacity are expected to lower prices for standard resins, broadening the gap between them and bioplastics.

There have been some longer-term successes in the field. Earlier this year, NatureWorks LLC — the U.S. firm that’s become, almost by default, the flag-bearer for the industry — reached 1 billion pounds of total production since its founding in 2002. At an industry conference in February, CEO Marc Verbruggen admitted this total was modest, but he added that in the world of bioplastics, that total “means that we have come a long way.”

Italian bioplastics maker Novamont SpA also has been around for 25 years — just like PN — and now has annual sales of about $175 million and more than 100 million pounds of production capacity. Traditional resin makers DuPont Co. and BASF SE also have offered bioplastic materials for many years.

But longtime U.S. bioplastics stalwart Cereplast finally filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Trellis Earth Products — a maker of bioplastic finished goods — has big plans for Cereplast’s Indiana plant, but Cereplast and its owners had tried to make bioplastics a going concern for many years, but couldn’t make it work.

Metabolix Inc. — another U.S.-based bioplastics maker — also remains active, but the firm lost more than $30 million last year. In 2012, agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland ended its production deal with Metabolix. The firm’s PHA bioresins now are made in Spain by Antibioticos SA.

Will bioplastics ever move beyond niche product status? NatureWorks’ Verbruggen is hopeful because of recent pro-sustainability moves by consumer giants Target Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and, of course, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the commercial behemoth which has set a zero landfill goal.

“If Wal-Mart says, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do,’” Verbruggen said at that February conference. “Then it practically becomes global legislation.”