For those who see plant-based plastics growing from marketplace novelty to commercial reality, Japanese electronics manufacturer NEC Corp. is one of the companies leading the charge.
The maker of mobile phones and computers plans to replace 10 percent of its petroleum-based plastics with bio-based ones by 2010. That's a huge jump from the less than 1 percent it uses today, as it hopes a substantial research program begins to pay off.
Ibaraki, Japan-based NEC introduced a phone made from corn-based polylactic acid last year, and is developing nontoxic flame-retardant and intelligent-polymer, shape-memory PLA grades, said Masatoshi Iji, senior manager of the eco-material research group. NEC is among the most ambitious in Asia in finding bioplastic applications, but it's far from alone.
Speakers from China, South Korea and Thailand touted their interest at the BioPolymers Markets conference, May 15-16 in Hong Kong. Generally, the mood was upbeat, as rising prices for petroleum-based plastics and environmental concerns have created an opening for the materials. However, in spite of all the hype, some cautious voices noted bioplastics remain a niche market with cost and performance limitations that must be overcome before major strides are made.
Still, that did not stop some from throwing out ambitious projections for Asia.
Japan's government wants 20 percent of the country's plastic to come from bio-based sources by 2020, said Inomata Isao, adviser to the Biodegradable Plastics Society of Japan, based in Tokyo.
That may be hard to reach, Isao said. But the government wants to lessen dependence on oil and fossil fuels as part of a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, meet the United Nations' Kyoto Protocol and make the economy more sustainable.
Thailand has the goal of making bio-based plastics 5 percent of its plastics market in five years, and launched a program of research funding, tax policies and other incentives, said a spokeswoman from the country's National Innovation Agency in Bangkok.
Thailand sees its homegrown cassava, among other plants, as an inexpensive raw material source and wants attract foreign and domestic investors to build biopolymer plants, she said.
South Korea's government is subsidizing the extra cost of using biodegradable materials in garbage bags and fishing nets, and has passed legislation banning expanded polystyrene lunch boxes and discouraging disposable packaging.
The rising demand for degradable polymers is driving Seoul, South Korea-based resin maker Ire Chemical Ltd.'s plans to triple capacity next year for its biodegradable resins, including polybutylene succinate, to 22 million pounds, said Do-Youn Kim, general manager of technical marketing.
``Environmental and oil security issues have helped secure the market and raise interest in biopolymers,'' said Jason Whelan, the technical services director of Cargill Investments (China) Ltd. in Shanghai. Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. is one of the world's largest biopolymer manufacturers.
But biopolymers remain a market marked more by potential.
The European market, for example, was just 110 million pounds in 2005, a tiny fraction of the continent's 88 billion pound plastics market. By 2010, the market could reach 661 million to 1.8 billion pounds, rising to between 4.4 billion and 11 billion pounds by 2020, said Marcel Dartee, a board member of the trade group European Bioplastics in Berlin.
If biopolymers can improve their performance, 5-10 percent of today's petroleum-based plastics potentially could be replaced by their bio-based cousins, he said. Demand is being driven legislatively, from France banning traditional plastic bags to Germany exempting bio-based products from packaging taxes.
Some performance challenges are critical, though. Lars Lundquist, a packaging research scientist with food company Nestle SA's research center in Lausanne, Switzerland, said biopolymers do not have enough moisture barrier, so the firm has used them in only one application, as a PVC replacement in a confectionary tray in the United Kingdom.
Also, biopolymers haven't proved to be an effective counterweight to rising prices of oil-based plastics. ``At the early stages, we and others thought we could protect ourselves from the volatility of oil prices, but I haven't seen that yet,'' he said.
Other speakers said the industry should work on more durable-goods applications, where profits are potentially greater.
Most biopolymer applications in the early stages have been in lower margin film and packaging applications, but the industry needs to make improvements on impact strength and other areas to make more headway in durable goods markets, where there's more potential profit, said Hans Van Der Pol, marketing manager with Gorinchem, Netherlands-based PURAC, the world's largest maker of lactic acid, a building block of biopolymers.
Echoing that point, Cargill's Whelan said his firm needs to raise its prices to justify additional investment, and he said Cargill probably set prices too low when it began introducing the product.
Some Chinese companies say they are finding opportunities.
Hong Kong-based sheet extruder Growth Pack International Development Co. Ltd. plans to add another extrusion line at its Dongguan, China, manufacturing plant later this year, chiefly to handle expected growth in bio-based plastics, like making food packaging from corn-based polylactic acid resin.
The US$15 million firm does less than 5 percent of its business in bio-based polymers but expects that to be 20 percent in a year, Vice President Otis Hui said.
Firms also are looking to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a possible market. Organizers said they are looking for bioplastic applications in areas like tableware and garbage bags.
But some industry officials involved with the Olympics organizers said price constraints on purchasing for the event and other factors could make it a high-visibility, low- or no-profit event for those trying to sell bioresins there.