Bioplastics Industry Getting a Second Wind

If anybody is thinking of updating the 1967 hit movie, The Graduate, they need to consider making a one-syllable change in the dialog. When the guy whispers in Dustin Hoffman’s ear, he needs to say: “One word. (pause) Bioplastics!” Yes, plastic made from natural polymers appears to be getting a second wind. Petroleum-based plastics replaced natural materials-based polymers during World War II and have dominated the industry for seven decades.

Efforts to return to natural feedstocks – corn, castor beans, soybeans, potatoes, tapioca, wood and other renewable resources – have not been commercially successful except in boutique markets.

But now, with sustainability and energy independence helping set the agenda, the timing couldn’t be better for breakthroughs in the industry to make bioplastics more commercially viable. And that, apparently, seems to be happening on many fronts, as evidenced at last month’s International Plastics Showcase hosted by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in Chicago.

There were 38 exhibitors offering bioplastics technology at the show, which organizers called a “surge in growth” over the previous show in 2006. On display (and for sale) was everything from resins to specially designed additives, and from machinery to processed goods. In addition, there were over 50 conference presentations on the subject – showing a vital curiosity by the thousands attending.

The magnitude of any shift is yet to be felt, but the plastics industry – according to the SPI – is the third largest manufacturing sector in the U.S., with 17,648 facilities (in every state) that provide $374 billion in annual shipments of everything from table forks to heavy bulk items. But can biopolymers replace petroleum in all these products?

It’s been nearly two decades since bioplastics got their first small foothold in niche markets. Successful research and invention – and patience after heading down some blind alleys – increased bioplastics’ market share, most notably in compostable packaging. Hurdles remain in the processing of biomass feedstocks and in uses of products that require tough performance – like car parts and heavy-duty piping.

But the rate of breakthroughs seems to heating up, especially in the food service and packaging sector, estimated to become a $45 billion market by 2013. For example, Cereplast, Inc., a major innovator, last month announced a bio-based foaming resin for producers interested in using it as a substitute for polystyrene (Styrofoam); NatureWorks LLC, the leading manufacturer of polylactic acid (PLA), launched a new fermentation process that reduces carbon emissions to be in line with recycling petro-plastic bottles; and Metabolix, Inc., in a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland, announced its new generation of injection-molding grade of Mirel Bioplastics, which will add stability and durability to products while remaining totally biodegradable.

These are mere examples, pulled at random, because it’s getting hard to keep up with the industry’s numerous, daily announcements. For example, NatureWorks, owned by Cargill, is involved in a bevy of ventures – including a recent one with Moonen Packaging and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to replace the global carrier’s drink cups with Bio-Cups – made with NatureWorks’ Ingeo coating – a first for airlines. Metabolix last fall announced it had discovered a method to actually grow bioplastic resins inside the bio-makeup of switchgrass before harvest! And Mazda said it hopes to build a car using bioplastic parts by the year 2013, something Toyota promised long ago.

It should be mentioned here that the term “bioplastics” applies also to things made from renewable biomass but which are NOT compostable or biodegradable. A report this spring from the Environmental Data Service (EDS) said this sector is poised to address performance problems by being “functionally and chemically identical to their oil-derived counterparts”, such as Brazilian bio-propylene from sugarcane ethanol – which has lured Dow Chemical, the world’s largest plastic maker, into a venture to begin production there in 2011. Materials from these processes would be able to fit into existing processing and recycling structures, EDS noted.

The unspoken, of course, is that the primary feedstock for this burgeoning industry has been from food sources, with about half the polymers now coming from corn – adding to the very tender Food & Feed vs. Fuel debate in Washington and other world capitals. Obviously, scores of efforts are underway to find and use non-food feedstocks, most of them cellulosic like switchgrass or wood – which is about as ironic as you can get.

Why? Because the very first plastics – made in 1865 by the French chemist Paul Schützenberger – were derived from cellulose acetate and are still used today for things like screwdriver handles! Talk about full circle.


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