SHANGHAI — While there is growing interest in bioplastics in China, the cost of raw materials is a limiting factor.
That's according to speakers at the China International Biobased Technology and Partnering Conference, held May 26-27 in Shanghai.
In Q&A sessions with speakers, attendees brought up pricing as a barrier to the success of the sector. One speaker spoke bluntly to attendees: “Unless we have larger production of [polylactic acid] in China, the price won't go lower. Throughout the industry, no one is making profits.”
But others were more encouraging. Jim Jem, China general manager for PLA bioplastics at Corbion Purac NV, told the audience, “We can do many things to lower the cost. If you can improve your process, don't always blame your supplier for the price.”
Speaking at the conference, Yu Yingchuan, R&D engineer and sales support at Sulzer Chemtech Ltd., a PLA manufacturer, said that global consumption of PLA will reach 300,000 metric tons per year by 2020. He added that the market will be short by next year, but that new capacity is already expected between 2017 and 2018 that will bring balance to supply and demand.
Further capacity will be “definitely needed” after 2020, he said. Until then, demand will be less than capacity.
“If you want to enter the PLA market you should do so now. If you wait you'll be left behind,” he said.
Yu predicted fast growth for applications where PLA has a specific functionality or where bioplastics are supported by local regulations. He added: “China will be the biggest market for PLA in the near future because we have people here and we have the market and need to protect the environment.”
Jem of Corbion Purac gave advice to attendees. He told them that the bio-based materials market will always struggle to compete with traditional plastics because of feedstock price issues. Stop targeting low-end applications, he told them.
“If you always focus on lower-end customers, that's the problem. If you target high-end you may have a much better future,” he advised. He gave examples of cosmetics, children's goods, health-care items, and even lingerie as high-end products.
Later, in an interview with Plastics News, he added, “PLA is more expensive so you just have to look for a good market where the health or the natural issue will make people more willing to pay for it or the cost is not sensitive for them.” He said high-end applications are a better fit for PLA than agricultural applications like mulch film, because farmers may be unable to bear the extra cost of using PLA.
Jem also identified technology and scale factors as limiters to the growth of the market in China.
“There are a lot of technical challenges, and if you solve it, then you've got the market. There's a cost issue, but you can avoid the cost issue by going to the high-end market,” he said. “Then you need to solve the technical issue, but a lot of people don't put money into R&D and just say your raw material is too expensive.”
Jem said Corbion Purac is watching the market closely and hopes to open a factory in China within the next five years, as business conditions mature. The company produces lactide in Thailand and ships it to China to sell to companies that use it to produce PLA, but a 17 percent import tax impacts its pricing.
Both Yu and Jem mentioned government support as crucial to the development of the market. Jilin province's Jan. 1 ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags has been judged to be a continuing success and that has given PLA manufacturers a confidence booster.
In 2014, China's government gave multi-million yuan grants to develop environmentally friendly bioplastics in four regions. There was speculation at the Shanghai conference that this year the government's financial support could be even more dramatic.
“This [environmental] crisis is also a business opportunity. If you do it right there is plenty of money to be made,” Jem said. “But you need to invest and put in the right effort.”
He encouraged the government to get involved, suggesting requiring the tableware industry or airlines to switch to using bio-based materials.
“Environmental issues can only be handled by the government, not by a private company,” he said. “The government has the power to do it. Those markets can be created overnight.”
Jem was optimistic about the future of bio-based materials in China.
“In the long run, bioplastics' price competitiveness will significantly improve as global production capacities increase, allowing better economy of scale, and converters will become more efficient in converting plastics into actual products,” he said.