Biopolymers are gaining strength in their battle for market share vs. traditional, oil-based plastics, according to a pair of market experts at the 2010 Plastics News Executive Forum.
We're now seeing market pull, said Frederic Petit, sustainability director for DSM Engineering Plastics in Evansville, Ind. There's demand for bio-based products from retailers and producers of consumer goods.
DSM EP a unit of plastics and chemicals maker Royal DSM NV of Heerlen, Netherlands is developing renewable-content grades of copolyester and nylons 4/6 and 4/10. The nylon 4/10 in development will be 70 percent based on renewable feedstocks, Petit said at the forum, held March 7-10 in Tampa.
Biopolymers consultant Jim Lunt agreed that the market is on the rise, pointing to increasing demand for bioplastics in household goods, electronics and auto applications.
Demand is going from single-use to durable products, said Lunt, a plastics market veteran who also serves as vice president of sales and marketing for bioplastics maker Tianan Biologic Material Co. Ltd. of Ningbo, China. It's being driven by oil dependency, global warming and health concerns, as well as by legislation vs. petroleum-based plastics.
He cited a Japanese mandate requiring 20 percent of that country's plastics to be renewably sourced by 2020, and the U.S. Federal Farm Bill, which requires each federal agency to buy as many bio-based plastics as practically possible.
Estimates of biopolymer market growth are optimistic, but also varied. Lunt cited several sources placing bioplastic production at 3.3 billion pounds globally by 2011, demand at just under 2 billion pounds by 2013 and production capacity at about 5 billion pounds, also by 2013.
Petit placed biopolymer capacity at less than 2 billion pounds last year, but said that number should grow to 5 billion by 2013 and almost 8 billion by 2020.
Those numbers seem all the more remarkable considering the world's largest bioplastics plant in operation today is a 300 million-pound-capacity plant run by NatureWorks LLC in Blair, Neb.
That could change, however, by the end of the year, if São Paulo, Brazil-based Braskem SA's 450 million-pound-capacity sugar-based polyethylene plant opens in Brazil.
Current technology can make PE and PET from sugar, as well as produce nylon 6 from beet-based lycine and polyurethane from soy-based alcohols. Lunt said technology in development is aiming to produce chemical monomers used to make plastic from sugar, cellulosic biomass and vegetable oils.
In spite of the optimism, a number of challenges still confront the market including, according to Lunt, the need to distinguish between bio-based (or bio-renewable) polymers and those that are biodegradable.
One focuses on the beginning of life and one on the end of life, but they're not mutually exclusive, said Lunt, who owns and operates Jim Lunt & Associates LLC in Wayzata, Minn.
Additional main challenges are performance and cost. In spite of ongoing improvements, bioplastics polylactic acid, polyhydroxyalkanoate and starch-based plastics each carry concerns about shelf life and hydrolytic stability. PLA and PHA also have been questioned because of their melt strengths.
On the pricing side, Lunt presented a chart showing that current selling prices for common bioplastics range from 85 cents to $2.75 per pound on average, quite a bit more than most oil-based commodity plastics, which still sell for less than $1 per pound.
Biopolymers will only succeed if they provide equal product functionality at a lower cost, Petit said.
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