Green Packaging - Materials Outlook: Bioplastics: Moving Packaging Toward Sustainability
With the world’s oil supply reaching its breaking point and with global climate change once again a hot topic, cosmetic and personal care packagers are seeking to cost-effectively and painlessly transition to non-petroleum-based packaging. The NatureWorks brand of polylactic acid (PLA), a by-product of corn that is fully biodegradable and compostable, was one of the first widely marketed products designed to replace petroleum-based resins. Since then, new products have been developed to challenge PLA in an increasingly competitive market. With the bioplastics market expected to mushroom in the near future, both upstarts and established companies race to meet anticipated demand.
Several bioplastics in addition to NatureWorks PLA are already on the market. Cereplast (Hawthorne, CA) produces starch-based resins. Its proprietary plastic uses starches from tapioca, wheat, corn, and potatoes to produce items for both the foodservice and packaging industries, and some cosmetic packaging suppliers have begun investigating its use. Cereplast currently is capable of manufacturing 30 million lb of product annually and in January opened a new facility in Indiana that will eventually add a half a billion pounds a year to Cereplast’s production capacity. The company also offers a new line of hybrid resins that combine renewable materials and traditional plastics to add durability and stability. Cereplast’s products are designed to be cost competitive with olefin plastics rather than be more expensive and appeal exclusively to an environmentally focused audience.
DuPont’s (Wilmington, DE) Renewably Sourced Materials line offers bio-sourced products for a variety of industries. Its Cerenol polymer derives from corn and contains 100% renewably sourced material, though its biodegradability varies by item. Manufactured in Pascagoula, MS, Cerenol can be incorporated into many personal care products. DuPont’s Zemea Propanediol, also composed entirely of renewable resources, is suitable for cosmetic and personal care packaging, as well as other high-purity applications.
Other viable options for bioplastics remain in varying stages of development, and many bioresins are not ready to be commercially marketed.
Metabolix Inc. (Cambridge, MA), in cooperation with Archer Daniels Midland (Decatur, IL), has established Telles, a bioresin company that has developed polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) Mirel. Mirel is a synthetic resin based on the microbial fermentation of corn sugar, cane sugar, and vegetable oils. Primary consumer applications for Mirel’s P1001 and P1002 injection-molding grades are for cosmetic cases and lipstick containers.
Though Mirel is priced higher than petroleum-based plastics because of higher production costs, its eco-friendly properties might be worth the price. Mirel requires much less nonrenewable energy to produce than do olefins (2.5 mega-joules of nonrenewable energy per kilogram versus 70 MJ for olefins such as polypropylene and polyethylene). Mirel also contributes a negative net CO2 footprint, resulting in -2.2 greenhouse gas per kilogram emissions compared with a 2.0 emission by olefin-based polymers.
Recently, retailer Target test-drove Mirel, using it to produce all of the company’s gift cards. Telles’s production plant will begin commercial operations late this year adjacent to Archer Daniels Midland’s wet corn mill, a source of raw material, in Clinton, IA. Telles has configured the plant to produce 110 million lb of Mirel annually.
Meredian Inc. (Bainbridge, GA) holds patents to produce a form of PHA, which it acquired from Procter & Gamble Co. (Cincinnati). Meredian PHA biodegrades in both aerobic and anaerobic settings, and the company will focus on adapting the product to traditional plastic applications, said S. Blake Lindsey, president of Meredian, in a news release. Meredian plans on beginning construction of the first of four PHA production facilities this year. The company targets 600 million lb of biopolymer annually as its production goal.
“The first plant would be a 30-million-pound-per-year plant,” says Scott Tuten, vice president, operations, of Meredian. “The next step would be 200-million-pound-capacity plants, which would follow in the next few years.”
Corn-based products such as those mentioned above, however, and their production processes are not completely sustainable, says Tim Greiner, cofounder of Pure Strategies, a consulting agency that deals with sustainable solutions for large companies. Products such as PLA are farmed using machinery that emits greenhouse gases and pesticides and fertilizer with inorganic compounds. In addition, Greiner says, bioresins such as PLA cannot be integrated into the recycling process because pickers cannot differentiate between these polymers and petroleum-based ones.
The same argument might be made for other food sources such as sugar. Yet Brazil has become a hotbed for sugar-based alternatives that hope to achieve sustainability. Braskem (São Paulo, Brazil) asserts its high-density polyethylene made from sugarcane ethanol contains 100% renewable raw materials, and has undertaken radiocarbon testing to prove its sustainability. Dow Chemical (Midland, MI) has partnered with ethanol producer Crystalsev (Ribeirão Preto, Brazil) to also build a facility to produce polyethylene from sugarcane.
Dow expects its facility to open in 2011 and have an annual capacity of more than 770 million lb. Braskem’s production will not begin until 2009 on an industrial scale. The company hopes to have an annual production capacity of 400 million lb.
Because of its extensive sugarcane fields that supply raw materials, Braskem CEO Jose Carlos Gubisich says, “Brazil has natural competitive advantages” in the race to produce marketable bioresins.
The future also promises sustainable resins that are less reliant on food sources. Telles has already experimented with nonfood-biomass products such as tobacco and switchgrass, though no product is ready to be marketed. Not only could these products avoid depletion of farmland reserved for growing food, but they could also require less land development with a higher yield per acre, increasing their odds of being sustainable.
Start-up firm Novomer Inc. (Ithaca, NY) announced that it has received $6.6 million in funding from investors to develop and commercialize its bioplastics, which the firm says are not made from food sources.
“Unlike other biodegradable plastics coming to market that are based on edible feedstocks and complex fermentation, we are using building blocks that are readily available and highly manageable,” says Cornell University professor Geoffrey Coates. Coates and his research group developed Novomer’s technology. “In particular, Novomer’s use of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide as inexpensive feedstocks, rather than the use of valuable food resources, sets us apart from the competition.”
BASF produces a bioresin not based on food-bearing crops. The company rediscovered Ultramid Balance, a material it introduced 50 years ago but had discontinued. Its sebacic acid base derived from the castor oil plant, which grows principally in China, India, and Brazil, serves as an alternative to petroleum. By weight, 60% of Ultramid Balance derives from sebacic acid.
Each proposing a different type of solution, all of these companies are banking on a boom in the renewable-source resin movement. However, current demand cannot sustain them. If oil prices drop, or if the environmental movement shifts directions, this market could whither. For now, however, these companies ride the wave toward sustainability, hopefully with clients in tow.