Long-range, bioplastics experts believe the majority of bio-based resins will be conventional resins such as polyethylene and polypropylene made from renewable resources rather than from petroleum.
The next generation of bio-plastic resins is already coming, said Jim Lunt of Jim Lunt & Associates LLC in Wayzata, Minn. There is increasing interest and development in making both existing and new monomers from renewable resources. We are transitioning from oil-based to renewable feedstocks.
Braskem SA of São Paulo, for example, is expected to begin making sugar-cane-based ethylene that will be turned into PE at its plant in Triunfo, Brazil, starting in August, with annual output projected to be 400 million pounds. According to Braskem, that plant will be the first in the world to produce plastics on an industrial scale using a 100 percent renewable feedstock.
Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co. already announced plans to use Braskem's sugarcane-derived PE in selected packaging for its Pantene Pro-V, CoverGirl and Max Factor products.
Brian Balmer, performance materials industry principal for Frost & Sullivan Inc., said polymers like PE and PP behave the same regardless of whether they are made from oil or bio-based feedstocks. While some end-users may be reluctant to use new materials, there are all sorts of things that people are developing to make existing polymers from renewable resources.
Lunt noted at the recent Emerging Trends in Plastic Packaging conference in Atlanta that, right now, India Glycols Ltd. is making bio-derived ethylene glycol for incorporation into PET; both Cargill and Dow have some soy-based polyurethanes; and a number of companies, including Myriant Technologies LLC in Quincy, Mass., and DNP Green Technology Inc. in Montreal are making succinic acid.
Myriant is scheduled to begin building a $50 million, bio-based succinic acid facility in Lake Providence, La., in September.
We are looking at a different route for materials and chemicals as we move forward, said Michael Mang, business development manager at Myriant. Companies are focused on making chemicals from renewable resources to deliver products with a smaller environmental footprint, and they are going after established markets so it becomes an easy adoption for the customer.
We are going through a feedstock change that is going to reinvigorate the industry, said Jim Millis, whose Plymouth, Minn., consulting firm Chemurgix LLC works with DNP Green, which is targeting succinic acid as its first product.
Bioamber, a joint venture between DNP Green and Agro-Industry Research & Development in France, is building the first bio-based succinic acid plant in Pomacle, France. In addition, DNP Green and Canadian ethanol firm GreenField Ethanol, using a license from BioAmber, plan to build a $50 million succinic acid de-icer refinery in Hensell, Ontario.
People are using bio-based technology to 'green' existing polymers, said Millis. There is a change in focus away from new materials into new technologies for existing materials.
Lunt said the drive to replace oil as a feedstock will continue whether that means making PE from sugarcane, PET from biomass, nylon 6 from lycine or PU from soy-based alcohols.
Creating traditional resins from renewable feedstocks is very much where bioplastics is growing, Lunt said. I don't see the plastics industry having a whole group of new plastic polymers it has never seen before.
Growth rates for bioplastics are projected at 15-20 percent for 2011, and long-range growth forecasts range anywhere from 12-20 percent to 30-40 percent annually, depending on how quickly new bio-resins and their markets develop.
There is a lot of emphasis on [polylactic acid] today, but the bioplastics market is much more diverse than that and it is hard to see where PLA will fit in long-range, if you look at what's going on in engineered resins and resins from renewable resources, Balmer said.
[PLA's] short-term market growth will be dependent on capacity and supply, as demand still exceeds supply, Balmer said. Longer-term, PLA will remain a niche polymer, split fairly evenly between packaging and fiber applications, he added.
Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of PLA producer NatureWorks LLC in Minnetonka, Minn., thinks otherwise.
PLA-type production should be able to growth 30 percent for the foreseeable future, he said. People will be looking at PLA as a viable alternative purely from an economic standpoint. We are only limited by the ability to put assets on the ground.
Verbruggen said the market will depend on the cost of various bio-based resins.
With our economies of scale, we are willing to fight that battle to see who has the lowest-priced biopolymer, Verbruggen said.
Regardless of which bioresins ultimately thrive, there is agreement that the global bioplastics market has reached a critical juncture.
Lunt said commercializing traditional resins made from non-petroleum resources will spur faster growth of bioresins, since suppliers will not need to sell customers on new resins with new properties.
As a manufacturer, I don't have to build a new plant and I know the properties because it is the same chemical, he said.
He cautioned, however, that conventional polymers made from renewable resources still have to be made at the right price, and that it is still in the early days for a lot of those materials.
The companies doing this have to do it in a cost-effective way, Lunt said. If it is at three times the price or 50 percent more, it is not going to be impressive.
Whether it is competitive or not may depend on how many chemical steps you need to take to make it, and whether there is an endless supply of the new feedstock, Lunt said. Just having a renewable building block is not a guarantee of success. It needs to be price-competitive and environmentally sound.
Ultimately, Lunt thinks the type of biofeedstock used to make conventional resins will be determined by the location of the plant.
It won't be all based on one commodity, he said. There will be polymers made from sugar cane, potato waste, sugar beets, algae, wood pulp and cornstalks, just to name a few.
Regardless of their bioresin niche, companies need to focus on what the resin does.
Bioplastic suppliers should focus on improving product performance and the depth of their product range if they are to succeed in the rapidly evolving markets for bio-based plastics, Balmer said. End users need to be made aware of the various alternatives available in bio-based plastics, with a clear definition of the performance and end-of-life characteristics of each of these bio-based plastics.
Balmer also said partnerships involving key market participants will be critical to long-term success in bioplastics.
Partnership with major chemical companies will ensure that bio-based plastic producers with a predominantly agricultural background will gain rapid access to critical technology and market-development capabilities, he said.
In addition, which polymers from renewable resources gain prominence is likely to depend on how they are sourced and from what type of renewable resource.
In theory, you could make all the polyethylene in the world from plant-based sources, given the available land, Balmer said. But you don't want to use crops that are being grown on lands that can be used for food.
The challenge will be sourcing the feedstock cost-effectively, he said. You need a crop that grows quickly and gives you a high yield and you need to do it in an environmentally sensitive way.
Ultimately, the experts agreed that bio-based resins from renewable feedstocks are inevitable.
Oil will always go up and make it commercially feasible for bioplastics, Balmer said.