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Thoughts On Bio-Plastics

Sorry for the light posting recently. I blame the news, which is sauntering along at a midsummer’s pace. Last week, OM’s acquisition of a German magnet maker was about the most exciting thing to hit C&EN’s Edison, N.J., business newsroom. While I’m sure that it is an important and exciting development for OM, it didn’t inspire me to blog. I considered a post comparing it to OM’s purchase of Degussa’s precious metals business a few years back. (If you don’t remember that, that’s OK, OM didn’t own it for very long.) After further reflection, that wasn’t such a good comparison.

Things seem to be turning around a little bit this week. Lonza is buying Arch Chemical, a one-time spinoff from bullet and chlorine maker Olin. One thing that intrigues me about that purchase is that it is a major investment from Lonza in specialty chemicals, not really in fine chemicals. I’m beginning to think every small to mid-sized chemical business is a target for a strategic acquisition nowadays.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the BioPlastek Forum in New York City. There is an article on the conference in today’s C&EN. In the piece, I profile the growing rivalry of new-to-the-world materials brought to us by biology versus bio-based drop-in substitutes for petrochemical feedstocks for conventional plastics.

There was some debate at the conference. On the one hand, brand owners really seem to be interested in plastics like Braskem’s ethanol-based polyethylene. Such materials align with their existing manufacturing infrastructure and can be recycled just the same as ordinary polyethylene. There were plenty of start-ups with routes to chemicals like p-xylene and adipic acid.

On the other hand, a few firms touted new materials, with new beneficial properties. For instance, Avantium presented on polyethylene furanoate, a polyester made from furan dicarboxylic acid. It has an oxygen barrier six times greater than PET’s.

Where do I stand? In the middle, and not just because I don’t want to offend anybody. I don’t see these things as mutually exclusive. There are legitimate worries that PEF bottles might someday muck up the recycling stream. But as one major brand owner whispered to me during a discussion, “More than 50% of packaging isn’t recycled anyway.”

I wanted to chime into the conversation. But, as a journalist, I figured it was best to just shut up and take notes. However, one point that I would have made if I did say something is that breaking new materials into the plastics world has been a very hard thing to do, even for petrochemically derived plastics. The last major resin to do so was linear low-density polyethylene about 30 years ago. There are a few other resins since that time that have had success—such as DSM’s nylon 4,6—but these are specialty materials. Some attempts by the petrochemical world to establish major new polymers—such as Shell’s Carilon, Dow’s Index Interpolymers, and others—failed.

More recently, there have been some successes, at least in specialty materials. Eastman’s Tritan co-polyester is an example. Its excellent dishwasher-safe properties have made it a ringer in housewares like cups. Also, the BPA issue has rewarded it with volumes in baby bottles and sundry other things infants put in their mouths.

The recipe for success for new bio-based plastics is probably to target sectors that need the new properties the most. For instance, PET never really had a straight forward solution to the beer problem, perhaps PEF can help. The bottled water market, however, sounds like a bad idea.

Another charge that I want to address is that drop-in substitutes can only compete on price. I heard that a bunch of times during the conference. I think it is wrong. The underlying notion is that consumers aren’t willing to pay more for bio-based materials. That part is true.

But what that statement overlooks is that brand-owners are willing to pay more for bio-based materials. Coca-Cola, Heinz, and Pepsi, seem to think that bio-based plastics enhance their image and are willing to pay for that, especially if they are exactly the same materials as they were using before. Interestingly, when an engineer from Toyota was asked whether bio-based materials have consumer appeal, he pointed out that Toyota has been rolling out the materials in vehicles like hybrids. The bio-based materials reinforce the green branding. I found that interesting.

2 Comments

  • Dec 14th 201107:12
    by Willem Lust

    Hi Alex,

    What is the beer problem? And why is the water market a bad idea for Pef?

    Regards Willem

  • Dec 14th 201119:12
    by Alex Tullo

    Beer needs a better oxygen barrier than regular PET for soda bottles. Water doesn’t really need that much of a barrier, so PEF may be overkill.

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