Bioplastics – Insights & Trends

Posted on 4/10/2015 11:41:02 AM By Jeff Timm

As the Beatles rock group once said "it was 20 years ago today…" this is approximately the time the global bioplastic market has been active.  In February 2015, Jim Lunt of Jim Lunt and Associates LLC, a global consultancy on bioplastic marketing and technology, presented an outstanding webinar - Biobased Polymers – Trends and Technology as part of the Adhesive and Sealant Council - ASC Training Academy webinar series.  A copy of the presentation slides, speaker audio and participant questions is available for purchase ON DEMAND (click on the “On Demand” tab).  Many insights into the history and current status of the bioplastics market were presented.  Some of these are discussed below based on my own thoughts and comments.

Lunt kicked off his presentation with a timeline tracing the development of bioplastic drivers. Unlike many new product/technology developments, which usually follow a very linear path, the development path for bioplastics has dramatically changed direction three times over its lifespan.  Lunt used a key word to describe this direction – “evolution.”

Evolution of Bioplastics Drivers

  • 1990 - “New” biodegradable/compostable plastics. Alternative disposal option to landfills.  Single use applications. Starch/sugar feedstocks
  • 2000 - Compostable/renewable resource alternatives to oil based plastics
  • 2005 - Sustainability, compostable, GHG, energy use, LCA, legislation
  • 2010 - Durable biobased equivalents to oil based plastics (drop-ins)                                          
  • 2014 - Durable, biobased content, sustainability.  Monomers from non food renewable resources.  Alternative feedstocks

Note:  The word “durable” as referenced above means non-biodegradable, suitable for applications requiring multiple usage using renewable resources, but designed to have a longer life span (for example: carpet fibers and interior car panels).

As you can clearly see, the first product/technology offering was focused on alternative options to landfill by the creation of biodegradable polymers that were compostable. The second direction the market moved to was a focus on renewable resources (corn and sugarcane) used to create drop-in alternatives to petrochemical based plastics. The current third phase is a move towards more durable, bio-based content plastics that utilize monomers from nonfood renewable resources, i. e. second generation feedstocks. These multiple shifts in direction contribute to the reasons why the bioplastic market has been slow to materialize and reach a critical mass and fulfill early expectations.

You might be wondering—Why so many shifts and direction since the early 1990s?  The early product and technology focus on biodegradation and compostability has been limited by product performance and lack of suitable composting infrastructure resulting in only a niche market for biodegradable bioplastics so far in their evolutionary development.  The market for the compostable products has not progressed significantly beyond the obvious packaging applications - food service, agricultural films, flower pots, etc. due to issues with cost, performance and the lack of  a disposal infrastructure in the U.S.  There is a lack of products that meet the consumer expectation for compostability in home composting. “Consumer Expectation” is defined as throwing it in the backyard leaf pile to have it turn into compost in a “reasonable” time.  Add the misleading "greenwashing" product claims and the confusion caused by the introduction of oxo-degradation products and you can see easily why there is no clear message and call to action put forth by the bioplastics market that is obtainable for the average consumer who "just wanted to do the right thing" with their spent packaging.  This is not to say that products like PLA and PHA did not perform technically as advertised, but simply that the value in use proposition presented was not realistic due too many external factors, including cost/pricing.

Coupled with this evolutionary bioplastic developmental process was the evolution of a more holistic approach to what sustainability really means and stands for.  Sustainable development took on cradle to cradle measurement and consideration with the choice of materials being only a part of the life cycle analysis (LCA).  With the 2010 introduction of 100% Green PE (I’m Green™ polyethylene) by the Brazilian producer, Braskem, the race was on to develop the next evolutionary step - drop-in bioplastics.  Certain nylons are also 100% drop-in, with drop-in polypropylene, acrylic, urethane and PET close to commercial reality.  The rapid acceptance of drop-ins is obvious. Ready markets, almost no tooling conversion changes, identical product specifications, competitive pricing and a clear sustainability story based on sustainable feedstocks are the reasons for rapid product acceptance.  European Bioplastics, the European trade association for the bioplastics industry, projects that 62% of all bioplastic sold in 2014 were non-biodegradable versus less than 1% back in the early 1990s.

The current phase of bioplastic evolutionary development is the acceptance in more durable applications, while maintaining as much drop-in capability as possible. Much of this acceptance is due to improvements in performance gained by compounding and additive technology to enhance base polymer performance.  Lunt projects that the bioplastic durable share has grown from 7% of bioplastic capacity in 2009 to 61% in 2015. This is due to a broader acceptance of semi-durable products in the household goods, automotive and electronics industries.  The back story to these growth numbers is the current evolutionary drive to develop new monomers from renewable resources. Some of this biomonomer development activity Lunt highlighted includes:

  • Bioethylene glycol (MEG)
  • Bioterephthalic acid (TPA)
  • Biobased p-Xylene
  • Anellotech Process – bio BTX (benzene, toluene, xylene mixtures)
  • Biosuccinic Acid & Derivatives
  • Biobutane Diol
  • Bio FDCA (furan 2,5 dicarboxylic acid)

This bio monomer development will lead to more drop-in products in the non-packaging engineering plastic products and fiber arena – Acetal, Nylon 6, 6, Polyester, Polycarbonate (PC), polytrimethylene teraphthalate (PTT), higher temperature polymers and higher performance polymers in general.  In the plastics world, higher performance usually equates to a higher temperature, more durable polymer, which is less of a commodity. Value-in-use is higher in this type of polymer, allowing development costs to be more easily absorbed by higher margins.

Bioplastics in Adhesives

Lunt presented biobased chemistries that are slowly being considered for adhesive formulations.  As the larger markets for many of these new monomers are developed, their utility will begin to be embraced by adhesive manufactures.  Adhesives unfortunately do not get the first call when it comes to new technology, as their overall usage is generally small compared to packaging and other large end-use markets like the automotive market.  Polymers, which have already found homes in adhesives, are soy proteins, starch esters, polylactide (PLA) and polyamide (nylon).  Other historical formulation products have included bio-based tackifiers – pine rosin, terpene and citrus as well as waxes and oils like soy, castor and dimerized fatty acids.

Lunt listed a number of companies that have toe holds in biobased adhesive technologies.  Some of these include: Bayer Material Science - Pentamethylene diisocyanate (PDI) – 70% content from biomass, Henkel/Danimer Scientific JV - Biobased 100% Hot Melt Adhesive – Danimer PHA & PLA, Dupont/Braskem - Bioacrylics & Green PE based tie layers, etc.  For a more inclusive listing, with discussion and a deeper dive into the chemistries, refer to Jim Lunt’s presentation.

Bioplastic Feedstock – Food Based Sugars

No discussion on bioplastics would be complete without a discussion on feedstocks.  When the first bioplastics hit the market in the early 1990s, no one envisioned a controversy would develop over feedstock selection.  But one surely did, now referred to as the “food versus fuel debate.”  Lunt covered this topic in his presentation and included the following map with the first generation of bioplastic sugar feedstocks highlighted by global region.

world map, map

Corn was the first sugar feedstock introduced with the production of the first PLAs and PHAs. With the increasing focus on biofuels such as bioethanol, public concern arose around the use of feed crops for fuel and this concern has cascaded to bioplastics.  Opposition slowly developed, and the food versus fuel debate ensued.   Drivers in this debate are:

  • Food crops being diverted to biofuels (ethanol) & bioplastics (biochemistries)
  • Land use
  • Fertilizer use
  • Pesticide use
  • The “ripple effect”
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)    
tomato, GMOs, GMO

Most reliable sources indicate that the debate is not based on fact—bioplastic and biofuels will not divert food crops away from human consumption, and we are not running out of farm land.  Less than 0.01% of the global agricultural area is needed to grow feedstock for bioplastics.  However, because of the spotlight on this issue, most biochemical companies are shifting production to second generation biomass feedstocks that are not used in the production of food.  These now include:

  • Lignocellulose
    • Wood (chips)
    • Corn stover
    • Other agricultural residues – sugar care bagasse, rice straw, tall grass, wheat straw
  • Oil seeds
    • Soy
    • Rape/canola
    • Palm, coconut
    • Jatropha
  • Microalgae
    • Kelp
  • Green house gas (CO2)
  • Waste
    • Municipal solid waste (MSW)
    • Food processing (cellulosic)
    • Used fats and oils
    • Animal processing wastes (rendering, feathers, hair, manure)

Challenges / Opportunities for Biomaterials

Jim Lunt concluded his webinar presentation with the following list of challenges/opportunities for biomaterials:

  • Oil pricing continuing to increase/decrease
  • Natural gas dynamics on polyolefin/aromatics pricing (shale gas)
  • Improved performance/reduced cost for compostables
  • Composting/recycling infrastructure developments
  • Expanding from single-use compostable to durable applications
  • Moving to non-food source feedstocks
  • Competition from carbon dioxide based plastics

Challenges around the continued lack of a U. S. composting infrastructure (except in select areas), and the value proposition that has always been present in the sale and promotion of bioplastics is based on the assumption that petrochemical fossil fuels face increasing price escalation or at least erratic pricing variations. With the drop in oil demand and the associated lower prices since mid-2014, coupled with the introduction of shale oil and gas, this assumption has proved unsupportable.  Other challenges loom for bioplastics.  The continuing low 14% U. S. rate of plastic recycling and developing the cultivation, transportation and distribution infrastructure necessary to facilitate the use of new second generation biomass feedstocks poses real challenges.  Couple the above industry issues with the fact that bioplastic growth seems to be stalled because of a lack of the public understanding and how succinct benefits and play out to achieve a sustainable world.

Yes, daily press releases continue to tout bioplastic application successes, but until large corporate brand owners can successfully and truthfully communicate the benefits of sustainable packaging and deliver biomaterials at competitive prices with equivalent or better performance, we will continue to be faced with mediocre growth in bioplastics.

I would like to thank Jim Lunt, Jim Lunt and Associates LLC, for permission to liberally reference his webinar in this blog.

For questions about this or other webinars in the Adhesive and Sealant Council - ASC Training Academy webinar series contact Connie Howe—ASC’s Senior Manager, Technical Services—at or 301-986-9700 x104.

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