With all the attention from the Biden administration's recent announcement to advance U.S. biotechnology and biomanufacturing, including replacing 90 percent of traditional petroleum-based plastics with bio-based materials in the next 20 years, it makes sense to step back and look at where we are today with biopolymers. Is this really something we can accomplish by 2043?
Way back in the early 2000s, Entek worked with Plantic, an Australian company, on a novel application of biopolymers for food packaging. This was one of the first bio-based material applications we were involved with and one of the first commercially successful. The material being used was corn-based and would degrade when exposed to water. It had some commercial success, being used in snack packages for several years, and Plantic (now owned by the Kuraray Group) is still being used in multilayer packaging applications worldwide.
There seemed to be a lot of promise at the turn of the century for biopolymers, but 20 years later, biopolymers still only make up a small percentage of plastic parts. From our extensive experience working with these materials on a wide variety of applications, we believe there are numerous reasons for this:
• There are significant challenges associated with scaling from pilot plant to commercial production of many of the biopolymers.
• Physical properties of biopolymers are inherently inferior to petroleum-based polymers.
Transitioning from petroleum-based polymers to biopolymers for plastics parts will take time and will not be easy. In fact, this would represent a sea change in the industry. As an example, another sea change has been the move away from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, which has represented a major shift in technology.
Just like hybrid vehicles came before fully electric vehicles, the following should be considered as the plastics industry moves toward greater adoption of biopolymers:
• A transition to plastics that are derived from renewable sources vs. developing biopolymers is an easier path away from petroleum-based polymers.
• Focusing on polymer blends or compounds that include biopolymers, renewable polymers and petroleum-based polymers is a slower but potentially more successful transition path away from petroleum-based polymers. This will allow the biopolymer industry time to develop successful products as well as additives for the biopolymer industry.
Can we meet the administration's ambitious goals for transitioning to biopolymers in the next 20 years? The answer is maybe, but it's complicated. We know that material compounders can, and will, advance plastics processing technology and adapt to market changes. We also know that it will require a major commitment and major investment in R&D from all parties — material suppliers, part designers and brand owners — to jump-start the process and make it a reality.
Dean Elliott is director of process development at Entek Manufacturing.