BANGKOK — While many places struggle to get bioplastics into the mainstream, strong government action has helped Taiwan quietly become one of the top spots worldwide for manufacturing products from polylactic acid resin.
At least that was the word at the recent Inno Bioplast 2013 conference, held Jan. 24-26 in Bangkok, where executives, government officials and academics from around the world gathered to assess the future of the bioplastics industry.
Amid projections of long-term growth globally, bioplastics executives also confronted the reality that, by and large, their products today remain a niche market.
But Taiwan was held out as something of an exception for PLA bio-based polymers, because government mandates of bio-based content in plastic packaging have led to wider use there than elsewhere.
In a speech at the conference, Mark Verbruggen, president and CEO of Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks LLC, the world's largest PLA resin maker, said Taiwan has a "well-working system" requiring a percentage of some plastic packaging at fast-food and larger retailers to be bioplastic.
"It's interesting that the most cost-competitive convertors of PLA in the world are all Taiwanese," he said in a follow-up interview. "Why? The government early on decided first 15, than 20, then 25 percent of all plastic in retail and all plastic in quick-service restaurants had to be bioplastics."
"You create demand and convertors optimize their equipment," he said. "The only place on Earth where you have large pieces of equipment solely running on PLA is in Taiwan."
Taiwanese processors meet domestic demand, and then export more than half of their production, Verbruggen said: "The world today is flooded with PLA parts made in Taiwan. … The government did a fantastic job and got that organized."
The head of a Taiwanese trade association for biodegradable-plastics manufacturers agreed that government requirements helped to jump-start the market.
Taiwanese government regulations specify percentages of bio-based content for products like disposable tableware and egg, bakery, fruit and vegetable containers. They also prohibit oxo-biodegradable grades of resin. Chain restaurants and retailers are covered, but fresh-produce and meat markets generally are not.
Manufacturers chose PLA because it was the cheapest of the bioplastics available to them, said Huang Chien-Ming, chairman of Taiwan's Environmentally Biodegradable Polymer Association and founder of PLA compounder Minima Technology Co. Ltd. in Taichung, Taiwan.
"All the container suppliers like to use a lot of PLA," Huang told the conference. "That's why we can use about 8,000 tons per year in Taiwan, especially for extrusion sheeting and thermoforming products."
Taiwan's bioplastics industry has been growing 20 percent a year since 2006, and in addition to the 18 million pounds of PLA, it processes about 2.2 million pounds a year of polybutadiene styrene and polybutylene adipate/terephthalate resins, he said.
Domestic sales for Taiwan's 23 million people are about US$20 million a year, while exports are about US$50 million, he said.
Taiwan's actions have attracted the attention of other bioplastics industry executives in Asia.
Apiphop Phungchanchaikul, secretary general of the Bangkok-based Thai Bioplastics Industry Association, said Taiwan has done a good job of using government requirements to boost demand for bioplastics.
Phungchanchaikul, who is also deputy manager director of Bangkok injection molder Reangwa Standard Industry Co. Ltd., said Thailand should follow Taiwan's lead and have stronger government mandates, rather than relying on voluntary activities.
"Everything is voluntary [in Thailand]," he said in an interview at Inno Bioplast. "For a high school or a small village it's OK, but it's not sustainable."