Double-digit growth rates continue for bioplastics, but there is plenty of pain to report as the still-emerging industry struggles to find its way in the extremely cost-competitive and specifications-intensive plastics business.
Cereplast, a starch compounder and a leading positive publicity generator, declared bankruptcy this week as costs soared and sales didn’t. Metabolix, a once-promising tech startup, is still re-inventing itself after partner ADM pulled the plug on what was the largest PHA plant in the world. Danimer Scientific has almost annually revised downward its very optimistic production scale up for PHA.
The industry seems to be morphing into two very separate camps.
One is led by companies like Coca-Cola, which is using drop-in plastics made from renewably sourced monomers like ethylene. Also in this camp is DuPont, which couldn’t build an engineering plastics following for its corn-based PTT polyester, but now says it plans to make as much as half its plastics from renewably sourced monomers like adipic acid.
The other camp is the producers of the new plastics made from renewable resources. These resins include PLA, PHA, PBS and others. These new materials generally suffer from cost disadvantages and performance deficiencies compared to tried-and-true and low-cost alternatives made from fossil fuels.
There clearly remains a commitment to renewably sourced materials as part of corporate sustainability drives. This was clear at today’s opening session of the Nature Works bioplastics conference called Innovation Takes Root. Corporations like Lego, 3M and Kodak all discussed initiatives that favor bioplastics. But application battles are being fought one beach at a time, and the numbers often don’t add up for bioplastics.
Lego would love to use a sustainable material, but has established a rather silly deadline of 2030. Tests on PLA for its famed interlocking bricks were very promising, but PLA badly failed an internal test of the bricks’ holding power over time. Scientists at Nature Works understand the problem, and are working on a solution.
It was assumed that packaging would gravitate to the new plastics, but the road has been rough. Ask Frito-Lay.
Renewable resources will play a major role in the plastics of the future, but the route looks like it will be much different than was imagined even two years ago.