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Bio-Based Polymers Arrive In-Force At Chinaplas

With the first-ever Chinaplas Green Forum going on in the background, resin makers at the annual plastics exhibition were suddenly flush with an abundance of bio-based polymers.

Companies from around the globe featured newly-developed bio-based materials or dusted off old ones with new eco-friendly tag lines. While bio-based products had arrived in force, many are wondering how fast the market can catch up.

“We’re only at the beginning of the process,” said Phillipe Hanck, sales and development director for DuPont Co.’s emerging economies Asia performance polymers division. “The life of these products is going to be very long.”

DuPont, one of the early developers of bio-based products, offers a handful of products that mix anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent bio-based material, including Hytrel RS and Zytol RS. These products have mostly been available since 2008, but development of the market has moved slowly.

“In Asia, there is no homegrown demand, except for in Japan,” Hanck said. “In China, there is some demand from companies looking to export.”

So far, after about a decade of commercial availability, bioplastics take up an estimated 0.20 to 0.25 percent of the global plastics market. According to a report released last year by the Freedonia Group, bioplastics demand is growing quickly, but from a small base. Demand worldwide is expected to expand fourfold by the year 2013, according to the report. Demand in 2008, however, was only around 200,000 metric tons worldwide.

In some areas, slow development can be attributed to drawbacks of the available materials. Products like polylactic acid offer little resistance to high temperatures and problems with strength and rigidity. In general bio-based polymers are also more expensive.

These challenges, however, have not stopped the slow progression of bio-based polymers into the market. At this year’s Chinaplas, Merquinsa of Barcelona, Spain, announced the introduction of its new bio-based polyester. Evonik Degussa Corp. of Parsippany, N.J., arrived at the show with its new line of bio-based polymers, Vestamid-Terra.

“This is a slow-moving process,” said Ricardo Luiz Willemann, director of Evonik’s Shanghai technical center for high performance polymers. “There are so many approval processes involved when you’re replacing existing materials.” One example Willemann gave was the process of selling bio-based materials to a multinational shoe company. Consumer products are a logical entry point for bio-based plastics, he said, because many companies are willing to take on the higher-priced bio-based materials in order to market their products as eco-friendly.

With an end product like a shoe, Evonik can offer to replace small plastic parts one at a time — getting both the material and the additional cost approved from the shoe company slowly. By integrating bio-based parts piece by piece, eventually Willemann hopes to get the approvals to supply materials for a completely bio-based shoe.

While food packaging and consumer products are the mainstays of bio-based plastics, resin makers are hoping to move into a wider range of applications.

“Now more and more people are talking about bioplastics, and they’re not just talking about food,” said Junaidi Zen, a principal application engineer at the PLA manufacturer NatureWorks LLC. “More and more people are talking about durable goods.”

The high hopes for automotive and electronic applications have prompted another batch of products from companies like PolyOne Corp., which recently introduced bio-based-focused materials including reSound, compounds intended to improve the durability of bio-based plastics, as well as OnColor Bio and OnCap Bio, two performance-enhancing additive concentrates.
“This is still a small market,” said Rick Noller, director of global marketing for PolyOne’s GLS Thermoplastic Elastomers. Noller says the company generally encounters two kinds of customers looking for bio-based solutions, those with a company mandate to improve their carbon footprint, and those that have already identified a customer base will to pay a premium for green products.

“Both are generating demand,” he said. “But I would much prefer that our customer has a customer base identified.” While demand is still small, there is ample room for bio-based polymers to grow and many companies are hoping to position themselves to take advantage of that growth. China is also expected to be a major player as manufacturers look to export more green-friendly products.

“Companies are pushing for this all over the world,” Hanck said. “It’s a trend that we can’t ignore.”





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