At the recent NPE plastics exhibition in Orlando, the message was unmistakable: Bioplastics are the rage. Scores of companies, big and small, touted environmentally friendly offerings made from renewable feedstocks, products like polyethylene from sugar cane, propylene from corn starch, and polyamides from castor oil.

While they’re still a small segment — maybe 1% of the global plastics market — bioplastics are growing by leaps and bounds. Why? Exhibitors cited a number of reasons:

• Going green has proven marketing and productappeal benefits, especially in the consumer market.
• Bioplastics reduce dependency on petroleum.
• Biopolymer production uses less energy and generates significantly lower CO2 emissions, compared with oil-based polymers. While often poohpoohed in the U.S., it’s a big deal elsewhere.
• Bioplastics also provide relative price stability for manufacturers, according to Steve Davies of NatureWorks, Minnetonka, Minn., compared to wide fluctuations in the price of plastics made from petroleum. And it can mean lower costs. His company’s Ingeo biopolymers, for example, are said to be price competitive when oil hits $80/barrel.

In fact, no producer is expecting a price premium, he says. Bioplastics are being sold on performance and comparable cost. And from an engineering standpoint, in many cases they are simply a better choice in terms of material properties, price, or recyclability.

“We’re getting away from a bioplastics-versus-plastics discussion,” says Davies. “Bioplastics are plastics. They’re just being made from renewable feedstocks. Fifteen years ago, bio based was the exception. Today bio based is the expectation.”

Demand is growing at double-digit annual rates, and that impacts the supply chain. Countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia have ample natural resources and are interested in selling their agricultural products into high-value markets. They’re making strategic investments to attract business and taking the necessary steps to be global leaders in this space. Several exhibitors griped the U.S. government doesn’t seem to be taking a similar interest in supporting this market, and might be letting a potentially huge opportunity slip away.

Another concern is how bioplastics will affect food costs. Davies says don’t worry. He notes, for instance, that the total polystyrene demand in the U.S., almost 5 billion pounds annually, could theoretically be replaced by bioplastics made from about 1.5% of the global sugar supply. It would have little, if any, affect on supply and price. The situation is markedly different with biofuels, he says, which consume a considerably larger percentage of agricultural products.

The real long-term solution for expanding the bioplastics supply, he says, will be in switching to low-cost, plant-waste feedstocks like corn stover, switchgrass, and rice straw. Davies expects if his company builds a new plant five years from now, it will likely run on cellulosic raw materials. Let’s hope he’s right. For years, the biofuels producers have said cellulosic ethanol on a commercial scale is right around the corner. We’re still waiting on that one.

— Kenneth J. Korane, Managing Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.