With the first-ever Chinaplas Green Forum going on in the background, resin makers at the annual plastics show were suddenly flush with an abundance of bio-based polymers.
Companies from around the globe featured newly developed bio-based materials or dusted off old ones with new eco-friendly tag lines. While bio-based products have arrived in force, many are wondering how fast the market can catch up.
We're only at the beginning of the process, DuPont Co.'s Philippe Hanck said at Chinaplas, held April 19-22 in Shanghai. The life of these products is going to be very long.
DuPont, one of the early developers of bio-based products, offers a handful of products that mix anywhere from 20-100 percent bio-based material, including Hytrel RS and Zytol RS. Although those products have been available since 2008, market development has been slow.
In Asia, there is no homegrown demand, except for in Japan, said Hanck, who is DuPont Performance Polymers' sales and development director for emerging economies, Asia Pacific. In China, there is some demand from companies looking to export.
So far, after about a decade of commercial availability, bioplastics make up roughly 0.20-0.25 percent of the global plastics market. According to a report released last year by Cleveland-based Freedonia Group Inc., bioplastics demand is growing quickly, but from a small base. Demand worldwide is expected to expand fourfold by 2013, the report said. In 2008, however, global demand was only around 440 million pounds.
In some areas, slow development can be attributed to material drawbacks. Polylactic acid-based resins, for example, offer little resistance to high temperatures and have problems with strength and rigidity. Also, in general, bio-based polymers are more expensive.
But such challenges have not stopped bio-based polymers from slowly progressing. At Chinaplas, Merquinsa of Barcelona, Spain, introduced a new bio-based polyester and Evonik Degussa Corp. of Parsippany, N.J., arrived at the show with a new line of bio-based polymers, Vestamid Terra.
This is a slow-moving process, said Ricardo Luiz Willemann, director of Evonik's Shanghai technical center for high-performance polymers. There are so many approval processes involved when you're replacing existing materials.
Willemann offered the example of selling bio-based materials to a multinational shoe company. Consumer products are a logical entry point for bio-based plastics, he said, because many firms are willing to take on higher-priced bio-based materials so they can market their products as eco-friendly. With a product such as a shoe, he said, small plastic parts can be replaced one at a time allowing the manufacturer to approve materials and added costs incrementally. This way, he said, Evonik can hope eventually to supply the materials for a completely bio-based shoe.
While food packaging and consumer products are the mainstays of bio-based plastics, resin makers are hoping to move into a wider range of applications.
Now more and more people are talking about bioplastics, and they're not just talking about food, said Junaidi Zen, a principal application engineer at PLA maker NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn. More and more people are talking about durable goods, Zen said.
In fact, high hopes for automotive and electronic applications have prompted another batch of products focused on bio-based plastics from firms like PolyOne Corp., which recently introduced reSound for improving durability and OnColor Bio and OnCap Bio performance-enhancing additive concentrates.
This is still a small market, said Rick Noller, PolyOne global marketing director for GLS thermoplastic elastomers.
Noller said Avon Lake, Ohio-based PolyOne generally encounters two types of customers looking for bio-based solutions, those armed with a mandate to improve their company's carbon footprint, and those that have identified a customer base willing to pay a premium for green products.
Both are generating demand, he said. But I would much prefer that our customer has a customer base identified.
While demand is still small, there is ample room for bio-based polymers to grow and many companies are hoping to position themselves to take advantage of that growth. China also is expected to be a major player as manufacturers look to export more green-friendly products.
Companies are pushing for this all over the world, Hanck said. It's a trend that we can't ignore.
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