The world of biopolymers has its challenges, according to Resin Technology Inc. data presented during the firm's Executive Forum, held May 11-13 in Fort Worth. Demand for these polymers is not surfacing as quickly as some had anticipated and there have been startup issues for producers.
The market will not be driven by economics, said Bob Tremblay, senior vice president of technical and information services with Fort Worth-based RTI, during a May 12 presentation.
“No high-volume brand owner can get enough material to make the conversion,” Tremblay said. “It will have its own niche, though. Legislative and regulatory moves will be [the] primary supporter of growth. It's not happening because it's cheaper or [because of] better performance.”
The industry is seeing legislative and regulatory moves such as bans of plastic bags and PS containers, for example.
However, there is a lot of interest out there and opportunities for growth, supported by sustainability initiatives, he said. Some products are compostable. There is more interest from overseas.
“Brand owners are trying to distinguish their products,” he said. “Consumers are influenced by good selection of products.”
Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks LLC's polylactic acid is the most recognizable of the brands, with 300 million pounds of annual capacity. Cereplast Inc. has 16 million pounds of capacity. The Los Angeles-based company mainly focuses on resin for thermoformed products and film and bags. H.J. Heinz Co. of Pittsburgh later this year will introduce a 20-ounce ketchup bottle made from a plant-based PET.
Many biopolymer producers are just starting out. Telles LLC, the Lowell, Mass., joint venture of Metabolix Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co., is expected to have its facility geared up to produce 110 million pounds annually of Mirel-brand polyhydroxyalkanoate. In May, the Department of Energy awarded the company a $6 million grant to develop renewable biofuels.
Altona, Australia-based Plantic Technologies Ltd. also has announced its plan for a plant in the U.S.
Still, battles continue on the regulatory front. The ASTM standard for compostability is a kicker, Tremblay said. The standard is not always achievable. There are limited industrial composting locations in the U.S.
Furthermore, composting bioresins in some landfills causes methane gas generation, up to 25 times the greenhouse gas effect vs. carbon dioxide.