The future finally may be arriving for biopolymers products that have been seen as long on potential, but short on results.
We're selling more than 100 million pounds [per year] right now, and we just doubled capacity, said NatureWorks LLC President and CEO Marc Verbruggen, who participated in a biopolymers panel March 10 at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference in Orlando. GPEC was organized by the Society of Plastics Engineers of Newton, Conn.
Verbruggen said NatureWorks' polylactic acid biopolymers are used in more than 20 commercial applications available at 70,000 retail sites.
Not to be outdone, Telles General Manager Bob Engle said that, after two years of construction, his firm has opened its 110 million-pound-capacity plant making polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, biopolymers in Clinton, Iowa.
We'll have commercial volumes in customers' hands very soon, he said of Lowell, Mass.-based Telles.
PHA is a corn-sugar-based biopolymer that, according to Engle, has toughness comparable to polypropylene or polystyrene. Four commercial grades of Telles' Mirel-brand PHA now are available, for injection molding, thermoforming, cast sheet and cast/blown film.
Newell Rubbermaid is using Mirel in an injection molded Papermate-brand pen available commercially in Canada.
Customers want materials they can select from with some reliability, Engle said, adding that Telles is conducting ASTM testing for Mirel in several other end markets.
Any discussion of biopolymer prospects wouldn't be complete without Frederic Scheer, chairman and CEO of Cereplast Inc., who's been working to commercialize the materials for more than 10 years. Cereplast of El Segundo, Calif., recently opened an 80 million-pound-capacity plant in Seymour, Ind., making its Compostables and Hybrid lines of biopolymer materials.
We're very pleased to see other companies entering the market, Scheer said. Every single technology has its merits.
Scheer also addressed the issue of using crops as feedstocks for plastics. We're taking far less than 1 percent of the [food] material available, he said, adding that Cereplast is looking into ways to use algae as a feedstock. NatureWorks based in Minnetonka, Minn., with a 300 million-pound-capacity plant making Ingeo-brand PLA in Blair, Neb. is exploring ways to use all-natural cellulose as a feedstock, according to Verbruggen.
Scheer, who also serves as chair of the Bioplastics Council for the Society of the Plastic Industry Inc. in Washington, added that the biopolymers industry is developing a Department of Agriculture labeling system similar to one used for organic food.
The hotly debated topic of oxo-biodegradables also was addressed by the biopolymers panel. Some industry groups are concerned that oxo-biodegradable additives don't degrade fully and can weaken products made from recycled resins.
Our formal position is that we have nothing against oxo-biodegradables or any technology, Scheer said. But we do have a problem with marketing claims that are being made. Any company can say their product is biodegradable but that doesn't mean anything. If they say it biodegrades in a landfill, they have to supply scientific evidence.
Casting an eye to the future, Verbruggen said the next 18-24 months will be very important for biopolymers, making it crucial for them to live up to their claims.
We're on the verge of something big, Verbruggen said. But if something negative were to come up in the media, it could hurt the industry and set us back five to seven years. We don't have that much time.
He cited such recent successes as Frito-Lay Inc. replacing polypropylene with biopolymers in some chip bags. The market will see a number of PLA/PHA blends for good properties, now that we have two large plants on line.
We'll start to see a higher percentage of PLA in blends with other resins, Verbruggen said. And we can build dozens of biopolymer plants. We're not affected by the food vs. fuel debate.
But there's still the question of how do we get over the hurdle and compete with traditional plastic companies. They're making billions of pounds and we're making millions.
Verbruggen concluded: The only thing stopping biopolymers is different economies of scale.
Conservationists like [biopolymers] and the U.S. government wants them to reduce reliance on oil and create new green jobs based on U.S. resources.
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