Modern Plastics, Jan 2005 v82 i1 p76(1)
Are biodegradable materials finally for real? Biodegradable plastics, usually based on renewable-resource materials such as plant starches, have a long history, but getting them beyond niche markets has proven a Herculean task for suppliers' marketing staffs.
But recent news points to a critical shift that may herald good times for biodegradable suppliers and processors willing to take a chance. Food processors seem especially willing to purchase packaging made of these plastics.
During a recent visit to Linpac Plastics, a leading European thermoformer and sheet and film extruder, key officials said they have tested--and were very positively impressed with--the starch-based polylactic acid (PLA) called NatureWorks. The material is supplied by Cargill Dow.
Linpac officials said the material extrudes and thermoforms as well as PET. Other processors have moved beyond testing. In the last three months two of the world's leading processors of rigid plastics packaging, Huhtamaki (Espoo, Finland) and RPC Group (Higham Ferrers, England), both have announced new product ranges based on NatureWorks.
At Huhtamaki, Ute Bremm-Kuhn, business manager vending/beverage at the processor's facility in Alf, Germany, says the firm's first commercial processing of NatureWorks was last summer's thermoformed cups for Belgian brewery
RPC's large thermoforming facility in Goor, Netherlands has launched a range of biodegradable containers using the material, too. The processor says the new range is a potential response to European legislation that taxes plastics packaging. PLA containers not only help avoid existing and proposed taxes on packaging and packaging waste but can also, in some instances, qualify for subsidies, says RPC. For sealed packs, the processor supplies a heat-sealable, compostable lidding film made with cellulose derived from wood pulp.
Working on heat stability
Mark Vergauwen, business development manager at Cargill Dow, notes that to date NatureWorks lacks the heat stability of standard plastics; at about 40[degrees]C it starts to lose shape. But he says the supplier is making steady progress on a new grade that will offer the heat stability of petroleum-based plastics and thereby open new applications such as packaging for very hot take-out food and beverages, or microwaveable foods.
Vergauwen's colleague, Michael O'Brien, marketing manager, says NatureWorks is in fact price competitive with PET now, but that pricing depends on volume purchased. He expects price competitiveness with PET to look even better in the future. "The price of corn has not risen in 30 years," O'Brien notes, in contrast to the steep recent climb of petroleum feedstocks for plastics. Cargill Dow has been running its plant for only two years.
Others are also making moves. Novamont (Novara, Italy), the leading supplier of biodegradable plastics in Europe 50% to 60% market share), last autumn acquired Eastman Chemical's Eastar Bio technology for production of biodegradable thermoplastic polyester. The purchase included patents and information on manufacturing process but no plant, equipment, or personnel.
Toyota Motor Corp. (Aichi, Japan) has said it hopes to control 66% of the market for these plastics by 2020, when it reckons biodegradable plastics will be a 20-million-tonne/yr market. Toyota has its own PLA technology and has used the material in some cars since 2003.
And Metabolix Inc. (Cambridge, MA) has found a partner to help it get its material produced on a larger scale. Metabolix was formed in 1992, and in late 2003 announced a one-year development agreement with BASF; that deal ended with no extension. But in early November 2004 Metabolix announced a 50-50 joint venture with agricultural processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM; Decatur, IL) to build and jointly run a 50,000-tonne/yr commercial plant for supply of Metabolix's compostable plastics based on agricultural raw materials.
Tempest in a teapot?
Despite the recent flurry of biodegradables news, the market is still very small. Novamont's 2003 sales were $34 million; Cargill Dow does not release sales figures, but an October 2004 Wall Street Journal article noted that its sales rose more than 60% in the first nine months of 2004, compared to 2003. Cargill Dow has a capacity of 136,000 tonne/yr. Still, leading packaging processors such as Huhtamaki believe it is worth adding at least a range of cups, trays, and more based on biodegradable plastics.
Cargill Dow www.cargilldow.com Novamont www.novamont.com Metabolix Inc. www.metabolix.com
Matthew Defosse email@example.com
-----Original Message-----TITLE Are Biodegradable Materials Finally for Real?
From: amy perlmutter [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, February 04, 2005 5:33 PM
Subject: [greenyes] Biodegradable plastics
AUTHOR Defosse, Matthew
SOURCE Modern Plastics, Vol. 82, No. 1, January 2005, p. 76
ABSTRACT Biodegradable plastics, usually based on renewable-resource
materials such as plant starches, have a long history, but getting them beyond
niche markets has proven a Herculean task for suppliers' marketing staffs. But
recent news points to a critical shift that may herald good times for biodegradable
suppliers and processors willing to take a chance. Food processors seem
especially willing to purchase packaging made of these plastics.