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Bioplastics capturing more and more applications

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

At the fifth annual conference of the European Bioplastics association in Düsseldorf (1. - 2.12.2010), many new uses of bio-based packaging were presented that will be on the market in the next few months. Plastics made from renewable raw materials are in great demand and are penetrating more and more areas of application, whether it’s packets to seal in the aroma of coffee, bio-degradable cling film, plastic juice bottles in the food segment, telephones and clear plastic folders for the office or vacuum cleaner hoses for the home. With 360 companies taking part, the international congress was well attended. At their information stands, visitors were able to get an overview of the steadily increasing areas of application for bioplastics. (Picture: Cycle of natural growth, processing and disposal)Although we have long been familiar with degradable plastic shopping bags, plastic cutlery or plastic cups, and they are by now quite widely used, other applications are only just coming onto the market. So far, not much has been invested in advertising budgets for them and, as a consequence, some of these products are slow to establish themselves. The price difference between them and their conventional counterparts is at best 20-30 % higher, and sometimes even quite a lot more. One critical insider pointed out that a knot bag that you tear off a roll for your fruit and vegetables costs 0.1 cents, whereas the bioplastic version costs 12 cents. (Picture on left: View of the audience)

By now, well known chemical companies and other converters of renewable raw materials are offering ecological alternatives to traditional, oil-based plastics in practically all product areas, but it’s the politicians who are dragging their feet and not setting clear parameters to accelerate the use of environmentally friendly packaging materials. Even the organic food industry is not exactly showing the way, although customers would appreciate a holistic solution: organic food in degradable packaging made of renewable raw materials would create the perfect union. There are, however, a few pioneers who insist on bioplastic instead of conventional oil-based packaging. Eosta is a prime example of a company that uses clear bioplastic packaging for its fruit and vegetables that go mainly to the conventional trade. Rewe too is increasingly using the ecological alternative. But currently no marketing power is being used to push these products, because the public is obviously not putting enough pressure on business and politicians. At the same time, the big PVC, polypropylene and polyethylene manufacturers have for a long time been in a position to move away from oil and to convert sugar, maize, grain and even waste instead to produce the basic material for many applications – PLA (polylactic acid).

PLA, a new plastic made from polylactic acid is very important in the growing bioplastics market. But even traditional plastics like polyethylene can be manufactured today from agricultural products. In the medium term it will be possible to utilize waste materials and bio-waste. In many cases, the processors of the various materials used in the manufacture of products for the retail industry can use their current machines and therefore have no or only low retooling costs to process the various bioplastics. (Picture: Examples of bio-based packaging film by Fa. Innovia)

The market for bioplastics is growing year-on-year from a low base. Andy Sweetman (picture on left), the president of the industry association European Bioplastics, assumes that growth this year will be between 30 % and 40 %. “Nothing much happened in 2009, but in 2010 the market has been recovering well,” reports Mr. Sweetman, who is the global marketing manager at Innovia Film in Britain. However, in an interview with Organic-Market.Info, Hasso von Pogrell, the managing director of the industry association (picture below on right), admits there are still no statistics for market volumes, turnover and growth. Collaboration with the University of Hanover
( Fachhochschule Hannover) will remedy this situation. Professor Hans-Josef Endres has been working in the bioplastics field for many years and is in the process of establishing hard data in this dynamic market. The intention is to publish this data between the beginning and middle of 2011 on thehomepage of European Bioplastics and elsewhere.

PLA production has been located mainly in the USA. Since some of the renewable raw materials produced there, like maize, are contaminated with GMO, European manufacturers have the advantage of being able to source raw materials here that are largely GMO-free. The pioneer in the field of starch-based bioplastics is the Italian company Novamont with its brand Mater-Bi. “We are now doubling our production every three years,” says Stefano Facco proudly. They are currently producing 80,000 t a year, and in 2010/11 they are investing 48 million euros in new production facilities. Facco presented a completely new product – a bio cling film that consists of 40 % renewable raw materials and is 100 % bio-degradable. It will shortly be on the market in a number of countries. Novamont is known for its bio-based shopping bags, plastic cutlery and packaging films (flow pack). “Novamont in collaboration with the farmers association Coldiretti has created a value-added chain from the farmer to the pellet,” explains Facco. Among the suppliers are organic farmers.

Another company investing in PLA production is Uhde Inventa-Fischer. In 2011, it is planning to set up a pilot plant in Guben in Saxony. More advanced is a PLA production plant that was opened this year in Holland by Synbra (Purac). Recently Synbra developed a replacement for polystyrene called Bi-Foam that is based on sugar cane. In 2011, the company plans to open a facility in Thailand that will use sugar to produce 75,000 t of PLA a year.

NatureWorks is a pioneer that has been working on bioplastics for many years. It now offers, among other things, a 0.2 litre plastic bottle that is being used for Italian organic lemon juice (picture left). “We have been stocked by Carrefour since September, and in 2011 sales will begin in Italy,” says Marco Polenghi proudly, who manufactures the lemon juice and is planning sales of 250,000 bottles for 2011. And if his ambitious plans are fulfilled, in 2015 it will be 10 million bottles of organic lemon juice. The bottle itself is manufactured by the American company NatureWorks, that also has agencies in Japan and Holland.

The firm Galactic is planning the Columbus egg: extracting liquid lactic acid, the pre-product for PLA granulate, from waste. “After thorough cleansing, we can extract lactic acid from waste materials like used plastic drink bottles, synthetic curtains and carpets, and this means we have a cycle of use,” is how Steve Dejonghe explains the principle. A well made film (Keeping the Value of C) demonstrated the various stages of use and reprocessing of the products. (Picture: Ingeo, a brand of NatureWorks, presented new products at the conference in Düsseldorf)

“If the characteristics are the same, the consumer is ready to pay 20-25 % more,” is the experience of Oliver Schmidt from Proganic. This company is a subsidiary of Propper, the manufacturer of products for the garden and household. Proganic, that began selling bio-based plastics in early 2010, would like to have 200-300 consumer products on the retail market in the course of 2011. “All the products will be of the same quality,” says Schmidt, referring to toys, garden equipment, containers for cleaning materials, flower pots and much else besides. He takes pleasure in reporting that even the colouring used for the labels is made from natural raw materials without petro-chemicals. The products are on sale at, for example, Obi, Ihr Platz, Rewe, Drogeriemarkt Müller, Coop and Marks & Spencer. He points out that in developing the products it has been no small challenge to meet the demands for heat resistance up to 100˚C and water resistance as well, while at the same time being degradable after a few months in a domestic composter.

The manufacturer Huhtamaki in Finland, that specializes in processing plastic film, offers a wide range of products in bioplastic. In Germany, the company employs 600 people at its factory in Forchheim near Nuremberg. Siliconizing, coating, embossing, printing, laminating and perforating are key words that describe some of what Huhtamaki does. New products in its range are, for example, transparent film packaging for shirts, tooth brushes (partly from biopolymer), adhesive tapes comparable with the German Tesafilm, packaging for nappies (e.g. Moltex öko), packaging for cheese, aluminium foil, rigid transparent packaging for fruit and vegetables, transparent bags for noodles, muesli, etc. (Picture: Huhtamaki employees present their company’s new products)

At this year’s conference visitors saw the presentation of an award (picture). Bio-Plastics Magazine, that does not belong to the European Bioplastics association, introduced five finalists chosen from 36 competitors. The prize, in the form of a five-sided glass sculpture, was awarded to the firm EconCore that last year developed a bio-based rigid panel that can be used in, for example, model building.

It was interesting to see that about a quarter of the visitors at the conference came from Asia. Manufacturers from Thailand, for example, praised their country’s production materials derived from sugar cane and tapioca. There were a lot of Japanese and Korean visitors too. “We anticipate that China will be a big customer in the future,” said one of the visitors from Thailand.

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