The demand for green packaging has many companies searching for bio-based alternatives to traditional plastics, and several manufacturers are stepping up to the plate with their latest breakthroughs.
Three companies discussed their latest advancements at the Packaging Conference, held Feb. 6-8 in Las Vegas.
In September 2010, Braskem SA opened a biopolymer plant in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, to manufacture its “I'm Green” plant-based polyethylene using the region's widely available sugar cane. The company now ships its green PE worldwide.
The green PE can be used in high and linear low density PE applications, and it is featured in packaging for several consumer products, including Coca-Cola's Odwalla juice, Danone's Actimel yogurt drink and Pantene hair-care products. Most of the packaging announces the material's presence with a recognizable “I'm Green” logo.
Braskem employs a cradle-to-cradle approach to the material.
“The green PE can be recycled. No, it must be recycled,” said Mark Mendelson, marketing portfolio director for Braskem America, in his presentation.
The green PE has identical physical and barrier properties to petrochemical PE, so it can be reground and reused in manufacturing. But, Braskem insists that the bio-based PE is not blended with petrochemical PE, Mendelson said.
“If we do that, we ask the question ‘what's really the point? What are we doing?' “
The company also promotes sustainability in its choice of material, Mendelson said. It takes less fossil-fuel energy to distill ethanol from sugar cane compared to other biofuel feedstocks like corn or sugar beets.
Sugar cane is widely produced in Brazil, and the ethanol industry has been intact since the Colonial period, Mendelson added. Braskem's feedstock production has no impact on the Amazon rainforest or on global food production — Brazil contains 22 percent of the world's arable land and sugar-cane ethanol uses about 1 percent of that, Mendelson said.
“Additional sugar cane could easily be grown. It would not take away from food production,” he said. “We buy the ethanol on the open market, and what we're buying is an absolute drop in the bucket.”
Braskem is looking to increase its green PE production, and has created a 10 million reais ($7 million) grant fund for researching biopolymer development, Mendelson said. The company is also seeking to expand its green PE production into other geographic areas, but is doing so carefully to avoid disrupting food supplies or impacting the environment, he said.
Most of the attention was on M&G Group's plans for a mammoth PET and purified terephthalic acid plant in Corpus Christi, Texas, but during his presentation, CEO Marco Ghisolfi also took time to talk about the company's developments in bioresins.
In October, M&G of Tortona, Italy, released its Proesa technology, which converts cellulosic, non-food, biomass sources into sugar. The sugar is then fermented into ethanol or other chemicals and used to create biofuels and biochemicals.
The Proesa process gives M&G a competitive advantage, Ghisolfi said. It can be made using any type of biomass, like agricultural residue, and is processed in a way that separates the C5 and C6 molecules in sugar. The C6 sugars are used to produce ethanol and the C5 are used to make glucose, he said.
“A lot of beautiful things are too expensive. We want to make sure we can be competitive with actual petroleum-based fuels,” he said.
M&G, with help from Fort Worth, Texas-based private equity firm TPG Capital, is currently building a biorefinery in Crescentino, Italy, to produce biofuels or green gasoline, Ghisolfi said. The company will eventually license the Proesa technology to other companies for biofuel development.
The company also plans to build a large biorefinery in Mexico that will concentrate on biochemical development. M&G is currently completing agriculture and agronomy studies in the area, Ghisolfi said.
Avantium, a research and technology firm based in Amsterdam, is taking a different approach to bioplastics.
Most green versions of PET are made with a bio-based alternative to monoethylene glycol, which makes up about 30 percent of PET's formulation by weight. Avantium's YXY technology, a catalytic chemical process that converts carbohydrates into furanics, creates an alternative to terephthalic acid, the remaining 70 percent of the equation.
The resulting molecule, 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), can be combined with plant-based monoethylene glycol to create a furanic polyester Avantium calls PEF — a 100 percent bio-based, recyclable PET alternative, said Dirk den Ouden, new business development director for Avantium, in his presentation.
PEF is the next generation of polyester, den Ouden said. It boasts superior thermal and barrier properties — six times better than PET against oxygen and two times better against carbon dioxide and water. In addition to being recyclable in regular PET streams, it also has a smaller carbon footprint than traditional PET and bioethylene, he said.
Producing FDCA is comparable in price to creating TPA, and YXY polyesters can be manufactured on existing supply chains, so there's no need to change infrastructure, he said.
Avantium currently produces YXY polyesters at its pilot plant in Geleen, Netherlands. The plant, which opened in December, has a capacity of 80,000 pounds per year and the material has been used to produce bottles, fiber and film using standard commercial production lines at maximum speeds, den Ouden said. Avantium currently uses the plant to prove its process to investors and to explore commercial applications.
The company's current focus is creating a PEF bottle. In December, Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. invested in Avantium, and two other bio-based companies, and charged them with developing a 100 percent bio-based PET bottle. Coke's current PlantBottle is made with renewable MEG.
A first-generation bottle, made with cooperation from NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn., was made on an injection stretch blow molding line using standard PET preforms and molds, den Ouden said.
Continued product testing, including food-contact tests, is currently under way, he added.
Avantium also has partnered with several manufacturing firms — including Rhodia SA, a member of the Solvay Group, and Teijin Aramid — to develop polyamides and other materials using FDCA.
Avantium is seeking other investors and partners in both the feedstocks and product development arenas, den Ouden said.
By 2015, the compny hopes to expand its pilot plant into a commercial plant producing 80 million pounds a year and supplying the company's partners with YXY polyesters. By 2018, the company should be producing on a global scale and will be cost competitive to oil-based PET, den Ouden said.
They may have plenty of options, but before using a bio-based material, companies need to do their research, said Jeff Wooster, global sustainability leader for Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co., in his presentation.
When a client asks for a bioplastic, you have to make sure you know what they're asking for, and that they're not confusing bio-based with biodegradable, he said.
Some materials, like PET, can be bio-based, but they won't be biodegradable. Others, like degradable polyester, may be compostable, but they're made with fossil fuels, he said.
Companies also need to avoid making a decision based on one positive attribute, like greenhouse gas reduction, while ignoring possible drawbacks, like decreased performance or fewer end-of-life options.
“We have to remember that if we think one reason is important in our minds, we tend to neglect other things that are important,” he said.
Instead, companies should use science, not intuition, to make a decision, and use life-cycle thinking to determine if a bioplastic is beneficial to the environment, he said.
Bioplastics should also be held to the same quality and performance standards as other materials. “After all, you're not in the business of making bio-based materials; you're in the business of getting a product to the consumer,” he added.
That doesn't mean companies shouldn't use bio-based materials, or avoid investing in bioplastic research, if the material isn't perfect. It might only meet some of your goals now, but by supporting development, you're helping to create better products for the future, Wooster said.
“It's our responsibility as a packaging industry to look for solutions that help contribute to the overall energy situation that we have, with recognition that we are not going to solve our energy crisis solely by using bio-based materials,” he said.