Amid a marketplace with growing environmental sensitivity, interest in biopolymer technologies continues to grow. But while industry players may flirt with the idea, they are not committing.
At the Biopolymers Symposium, held Oct. 6-8 in Rosemont, experts from major packagers, biopolymers firms and consumer product companies discussed the barriers that are preventing larger market acceptance.
``Biopolymers need to shoehorn'' their way into various markets and carry the industry past its infancy, said Thomas Black, North America vice president for Plantic Technologies Ltd., an Altona, Australia-based biopolymers maker. Black said his company hears many of the same questions from customers about biomaterials.
``Bio-based materials need to meet economic, social and environmental needs in order to be implemented by large food-packaging companies,'' said Paola Appendini, associate principal scientist for Kraft Foods Inc. packaging strategic research. ``The key to their success is on the tight collaboration of different functions across the supply chain and availability of transparent data.''
Among companies interested in the switch, Ford Motor Co. is seeking the results of complete durability studies on neat polylactic acid.
The car maker needs to know how to improve long-term PLA performance, said Ellen Lee, plastics research technical expert in Ford's materials and nanotechnology department. Critical factors include crystallization behavior, impact performance and durability and degradation.
For biopolymers, the biggest issue involves cost and delivery, said Hiroyaki Mori, project leader in the advanced material laboratories of Tokyo-based Sony Corp.
``We think bioplastic is one of the ideal plastics,'' Mori said. ``It has the possibility to make new attractive products.
The price of PLA is coming down, Mori said, but processors need to add cost-increasing additives to improve PLA's properties.
Mori said current distribution of Sony products with sustainable material is limited mostly to the Japanese market.
Footwear giant Nike Inc. of Beaverton, Ore., uses high-performance polymers mostly with polyurethane and polyamide chemistries but has not embraced biopolymers yet.
``We struggle with that,'' said Ruzica Krstic, a senior materials researcher with Nike. ``What are the social and economic benefits to the consumers?'' Krstic said Nike product developers ``look toward the third or fourth generation of biopolymers'' to possibly incorporate the materials on the firm's ``huge sustainability agenda.''
Gilbreth Packaging has found success with EarthFirst-brand PLA film. The material accounts for at least 12 percent of the shrink-sleeve volume. Plastic Suppliers Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, makes EarthFirst film.
PVC is in 62 percent of Gilbreth labels now, down from 75 percent in 2006.
``We started work with PLA four years ago'' and found PLA's sensitivity to heat was good for shrink-sleeve applications, said Theresa Sykes, commercial development director with Croydon, Pa.-based Gilbreth.
Under current film pricing, EarthFirst PLA is 3-5 percent more expensive than PVC and 3-5 percent cheaper than glycol-modified PET, Sykes said.
Client McCormick & Co. Inc. switched its cocktail sauce jar from a paper label to a PLA full-body shrink sleeve, Sykes said. Pure Pacific International Inc.'s Aloha artesian water and a green tamper-evident band on Quaker Oats oatmeal containers also changed over.
Innovia Films Ltd. touted the success of its food-grade NatureFlex biodegradable cellulose-based film. Using a NatureFlex lamination of a reverse-printed transparent film and a metalized film, Pak-Sel Inc. of Portland, Ore., has been converting the film for packaging of a nutrition bar from the GoodOnYa deli in San Diego and Yerba Mate-brand organic tea from Guayakí of Sebastopol, Calif.
The film has a moisture/vapor/transmission-rate barrier level of 0.65 grams per 100 square inches per day at tropical conditions, said Malcolm Cohn, Americas market manager in Atlanta. The firm is based in Wigton, England.
Earthcycle Packaging Ltd. is supplying thermoformed produce trays made of palm-fruit-derived fiber from a factory in Johor Bharu, Malaysia. Packers use the retail trays for distributing peaches, nectarines, tomatoes and other fresh produce.
Earthcycle of Vancouver, British Columbia, aims to ``find uses for the waste, and commercialize products, from the Malaysian palm oil industry,'' said Shannon Boase, president and chief executive officer.
Earthcycle began the business with a Malaysian partner in 2004 and took ownership of the plant and land in early 2008.
Earthcycle is developing a next-generation palm-fiber tray for mushrooms. ``We need to increase the material's water resistance,'' Boase said. Modification should improve the ability to wick moisture away from the product.
NatureWorks continues to evolve as a maker of corn-based PLA resin.
``We will make a change in our manufacturing process in late 2009,'' said Marc Verbruggen, NatureWorks president and chief executive officer, in a presentation. ``Our carbon footprint will be significantly better.''
The next-generation Ingeo-brand resin will yield net greenhouse gas emissions of 0.8 carbon-dioxide-equivalent per polymer kilogram. Now, Ingeo emits 2.0 CO2 equivalent.
In about five years, NatureWorks will use switchgrasss or biomass materials rather than corn, Verbruggen said.
In the longer term, ``we have to get to a billion pounds'' of annual rated capacity of Ingeo PLA, he said. NatureWorks is doubling the annual rated capacity to 300 million pounds at its production site in Blair, Neb. The Minnetonka, Minn.-based firm is a joint venture of Cargill Inc. and Teijin Ltd.
Verbruggen noted that Teijin CEO Shigeo Ohyagi has pledged ``to replace all oil-derived materials used in its chemical products including plastics, films and fibers with bio-derived resources including plants.''
More Entek lab trials
Work with biogradable resin accounted for 35 percent of compounding trials in 2008 at Entek Extruders through mid-September vs. 6 percent for all of 2007.
``We can handle 50-60 trials per year,'' said Entek lab manager Dean Elliott.
Trials of wood-plastic composite lumber, pellets and profiles represented 39 percent of the 2008 trials through mid-September vs. 59 percent in 2007. General compounding accounted for 26 percent of trails in each time frame.
The lab occupies about 6,000 square feet, operates Entek extruders of 53 and 27 millimeters and utilizes an air-cooled conveyor belt for strands, which is ``useful for bioresins,'' Elliott said.
Entek Extruders is a unit of Lebanon, Ore.-base Entek Manufacturing Inc.
IntertechPira organized the conference, which attracted about 130 attendees. The North American operation of IntertechPira is located in Portland, Maine.