If higher costs of traditional resins do create a windfall for bio-resins, processors will find a growing selection of materials to choose from.
BASF AG of Ludwigshafen, Germany, is expanding its Ecoflex-brand natural plastic line with Ecovio, a polylactide-based product that can be mixed with standard Ecoflex, which is polyester-based.
Ecovio production began in late October at an undisclosed location in Germany, according to biodegradable polymers business head Dietmar Heufel. Heufel and other materials executives spoke at Commercializing Bioresins 2005, an industry conference Nov. 7-9 in Atlanta.
The material is expected to be commercially available in the United States in the second half of 2006 and will be aimed at applications in carrier bags and packaging film.
BASF currently produces about 18 million pounds of Ecoflex annually at a site in Ludwigshafen. The firm will add about 13 million pounds of annual production of the material early next year in Schwarzheide, Germany.
Another company entering the bio-based game is Metabolix Inc., a private firm based in Cambridge, Mass. The company was spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 and acquired biopolymer technology from Monsanto Inc. in 2001.
Metabolix began its first commercial production of organic polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) resin - based on corn sugar - In October at an undisclosed location in the Midwest. The plant is expected to produce 200,000 pounds of material this year and 2 million pounds in 2006, according to business development director Daniel Gilliland.
Metabolix PHA is made through microbial fermentation and currently sells for around $1.50 per pound. Gilliland said the firm expects that price to drop to $1 by 2008.
Gilliland described the resin as a semicrystalline thermoplastic that can be used in most basic plastic processes and on conventional processing equipment.
Metabolix also is exploring the use of switch grass - a common wild grass that grows in many areas of the Midwest - as a potential feedstock. To date, Metabolix has received $10 million in federal funding for switch grass research.
The firm also is involved in joint ventures with agricultural firm Archer Daniels Midland Co. - which is supplying initial feedstock - and oil supplier BP plc.
The first commercial product using Metabolix PHA will be a soil stake used in farming. The item will be available early next year.
One of the more established names in the bio-resin field is Novamont SpA of Milan, Italy, which has been working with its Mater-Bi-brand polyester-based bioresin since 1989. The firm has expanded its product mix to include 10 film grades.
During the past four years, Novamont has tripled its capacity by adding a new line and now can produce almost 80 million pounds annually.
New business development manager Stefano Facco said the firm's sales are growing at an annual rate of 20-30 percent and now stand at around $35 million.
Two Asian firms also are active in the market. In Singapore, Grenidea Technologies Ltd. is making a resin from palm oil biomass.
The material is in abundant supply, since half of the world's palm oil production takes place in that country, said Managing Director Yan Xu.
Grenidea's material sells under the Agroresin brand name and has been commercial since 2003. The resin is being used in bakery trays and fresh produce containers, which biodegrade almost completely in less than three months, Xu said.
In Japan, Osaka-based Mitsui Chemicals Inc. is increasing production of its Lacea-brand PLA resin. The bio-based material has been used in electronics packaging, envelope windows and prepaid phone cards, product manager Tadashi Yagi said.
Most recently, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. of Tokyo has used Lacea PLA in packaging straps at its auto plants.