Biopolymer suppliers are gearing up for another year of growth as their products continue to gain market share in packaging.
Buoyed by successes on a range of fronts, biopolymers companies are stepping up market development and adding capacity to keep up with demand.
NatureWorks LLC is expanding its branding program to encourage end users to boast that their products are based on the firm's Ingeo polylactic acid polymers.
``Brand owners can do it to communicate their environmental awareness to the consumer,'' said NatureWorks Chief Executive Officer Dennis McGrew.
McGrew expects growth for Ingeo to be fueled by corporate and consumer awareness of environmental issues and climate change, the ultimate drivers for biopolymer demand in packaging. Biopolymers are marketed heavily as alternatives to plastics that are based on petroleum.
``We will continue to focus on greenhouse gas reduction and cuts in fossil fuel use,'' McGrew stressed.
Within its product lines, NatureWorks plans to expand in fresh-food packaging and bottles for water and juice, and in films and card stock. Foam trays for meat packaging are another growth area and the Minnetonka, Minn., firm is seeking growing acceptance in extrusion coating for beverage cups and injection molded and thermoformed durables, McGrew said in a telephone interview.
Extrusion coating and food-service products are also growth areas for DaniMer-brand modified PLA biopolymers supplied by DaniMer Scientific LLC of Bainbridge, Ga. The firm also is considering a thrust into flexible films, said DaniMer Scientific President S. Blake Lindsey. Modified PLA's relatively high heat-deflection temperature offers a range of market opportunities not readily suited to unmodified PLA, he said.
DaniMer Scientific also has polycondensation polymer technology called Seluma that creates polyester-type polymers from 100 percent renewable plant-based feedstocks. Seluma is suited to blown film, thermoforming and injection molding and can be used as additives for other biopolymers to improve their physical properties, Lindsey said. Mixed with PLA, for example, it improves adhesion, flexural strength and temperature resistance.
``No one biopolymer can do it all,'' said Lindsey.
Sister company Meredian Inc. brings a third technology to the table complementing DaniMer and Seluma, explained Lindsey, who also is president of Meredian. That technology is based on polyhydroxyalkanoate biopolymers. The company acquired PHA technology last fall when it bought a technology portfolio from Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati.
P&G developed the PHA technology to make packaging from renewable resources, but never went commercial with it. The portfolio is suited to making films, bottles and rigid packaging.
Growth in compostables based on starch-modified PLA should continue in 2008, according to Cereplast Inc. Demand for those products is rising in food packaging such as single-service wares, said Cereplast Chief Executive Officer Frederic Scheer. The Hawthorne, Calif., firm's own Compostables lineup includes grades that can be thermoformed, injection and blow molded and extruded as films, profiles and coatings. New grades will be introduced with higher heat-deflection temperatures for thermoforming. Already the firm unveiled a higher-heat thermoforming grade last fall. That product uses nanotechnology and proprietary processes to achieve a heat-deflection temperature of 155° F, about 15° F higher than typical competing grades.
Scheer also is bullish on its sustainable Hybrid Resins in 2008. The firm's first version combines polypropylene with starch and is aimed mainly at durables. In the second half of the year Cereplast aims to launch a polyethylene/starch hybrid.
Biopolymer makers are adding capacity to match anticipated growth for their products.
Cereplast has chosen Seymour, Ind., for its new production plant, which will include two extrusion lines that should be running by midyear. The site is close to agricultural areas that could supply starch and other materials to be compounded into Cereplast biopolymers.
Cereplast experienced sales growth of 300 percent in 2007, Scheer said and he expects to match or beat that rate this year. Still, he forecasts an ample supply of biopolymers for applications development.
``Supply is not a concern in 2008,'' he stressed.
Scheer said his firm's sustainable Hybrid Resins line will carry a guaranteed price for the whole of 2008.
``Price will be extremely attractive vs. conventional resins,'' Scheer said. With oil at or near $100 a barrel, biopolymers pricing looks better than ever, he added.
McGrew said NatureWorks has been adding incremental production capacity during the past year and a half to keep up with demand. He predicts no supply problems in 2008, and next year the firm will double capacity to 300 million pounds per year.
``We're not constrained with supply,'' McGrew said.
Lindsey said DaniMer Scientific could have sold more biopolymers last year if more PLA had been available for modification.
``There is definite demand in the marketplace,'' said Lindsey, whose companies are laying out plans for their future production base. ``Customers want to switch, if more is available.''
DaniMer Scientific is going commercial with its Seluma biopolymers in the second quarter. Soon Meredian will announce the location for a pilot plant with 30 million pounds per year of PHA capacity that will allow production of the biopolymers in 2009. The pilot plant may be located in Georgia, where DaniMer Scientific runs its modified-PLA plant. Over the next five years Meredian wants to install three 200 million-pound-per-year PHA lines.
Metabolix and joint venture partner Archer Daniels Midland Co. are building a commercial-scale PHA plant adjacent to Archer Daniels' wet corn mill in Clinton, Iowa. When it begins operating in late 2008, the joint venture plant, under the name Telles, will be able to make 110 million pounds of Mirel-brand biopolymer per year. Mirel was used in gift cards in all of Target's 1,600 stores during the recent holiday season.
Although biopolymers are gaining niche markets, they can face hurdles for broader acceptance, some observers said.
Heat-deflection temperature continues to be an issue for some PLA grades, according to William Riesbeck, vice president of sales, marketing and business development for sheet extruder Ex-Tech Plastics Inc. of Richmond, Ill. Ex-Tech makes a range of sheet, including products based on PLA.
One common grade has a heat-deflection temperature of about 105° F, ``which turns some thermoformers off,'' he said.
Riesbeck said potential users are concerned that any products made from such sheet could deform in a sunny retail window or other location when temperatures rise too high.
``They worry about shipping and storing,'' Riesbeck said. ``It's why more people haven't tried it.''
Brittleness can be a problem, but it is relatively easy to design a product to compensate for it, Riesbeck said. In general, though, the market doesn't have a drop-in PLA replacement yet for PET sheet, the main competing product for PLA sheet, he added.
Biopolymer producers have improved their offerings, but there is still a lot of research going on to address drawbacks, according to Jay Waddell, managing partner for product and market development company Plastic Concepts & Innovations LLC of Mount Pleasant, S.C.
Brittleness and melt strength can be problems, but in-line thermoformers are finding process and mold conditions to overcome them and provide products with required strength, according to Waddell.