Bioplastics were not front and center at the year’s National Plastics Exposition, held in Orlando, FL this week. NPE is the every-three-years show where companies roll out their hottest new products for the plastics processing marketplace. To be sure, sustainability is still an important theme for the American plastics industry, but the emphasis now seems to be on more subtle issues such as energy conservation and lightweighting. Bioplastics, at least from my viewpoint, had a bigger PR play in the previous two shows, and certainly in the previous two K Fairs held in Germany.
But there are serious bioplastics players here at NPE2012. DuPont, for sure, with its stable of renewably sourced engineering materials. And Braskem, the big player in Brazil, as well as others. For the most part, the usual players.
I found two other very interesting bioplastics companies squirreled away in small booths in the North/South Hall, where most of the materials’ exhibits are located.
One is Purac of Gorinchem, the Netherlands, which is leveraging its technology know-how in high-quality polylactic acid for the medical market (think bioabsorbable bone anchors) into a major play in durable bioplastics for cars, consumer electronics, and other markets. Purac has built a 75,000 tons plant in Thailand to produce lactic acid using sugar cane as a feedstock. The pitch to brand owners is that PLA has a smaller carbon footprint that plastics made from oil and has the potential of being composted after completing its life as a interior automotive component, safety helmet, computer housing or whatever.
Significantly, the plastic polymerized from Purac’s lactic acid has better mechanical properties than other commercially available PLAs, says Francois de Bie, global marketing director of bioplastics at Purac told me an interview. He was joined by Jeroen Jonker, vice president bioplastics at Purac. Both are veterans of technical plastics powerhouse GE Plastics, now owned by SABIC. They acknowledge that the durable plastics business is a very different game than medical, where volumes are very small and prices are very high.
But the technology is transferrable. The proprietary backbone of the very pure Purac PLA can withstand temperatures up to 356°F. Purac says that its PLA technology can replace polystyrene, polypropylene and ABS-type materials.
Purac is looking for go-to-market partners, particularly with polymerization and/or compounding capabilities. One promising application is expanded foam that would replace polystyrene foam. Working with Purac and Sulzer, Synbra Technology developed BioFoam as an alternative to its polystyrene foam products. A 5,000 tons per year plant opened last year in the Netherlands. The plant uses GMO-free feedstocks, an important issue in Europe.
A few aisles over in the North/South Hall is Kureha America, which is showing its newly commercialized PGA biodegradable barrier polymer that allows customer to tailor degradability to meet specific requirements.
Last year Kureha brought on line a 4,000 tons per year (8.8 million pounds) polyglycolic acid (PGA) plant at a former DuPont site in Belle, WV. The initial target is food and beverage packaging, but significant interest is emerging from the oil and gas industry for use in “fracking” where molded components will biodegrade after serving their purpose, Fred M. Daniell, president of Kureha America, said in an interview at the show. “Companies are looking at structural shapes where the parts would have a temporary role,” said Daniell. The company is looking at several other applications, ranging from medical sutures to consumer electronics.
The two exhibits show some maturing of the bioplastics industry. The feeling a few years ago that these materials would quickly sweep through the packaging industry is clearly a memory (think Telles). Bioplastics have significant potential for targeted, niche applications where their properties are critical. And the carbon footprint story will grow more important.