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Plastics: The Bioresin Revolution

There are many ways that plastics can offer true "green" alternatives in a variety of applications. And the industry is working overtime to keep the products coming.

Jun/Jul 08
Plastic may be fantastic, but how "green" can it be? One of the most ubiquitous commodities in the world is plastic packaging, and finding ways to reduce dependence on petroleum-based resins is big business in a world where green awareness is taking center stage.

There are two primary types of green resins that fall under the umbrella of bioresins: degradable and compostable. The idea of degradability, especially for packaging materials, has been kicked around for more than a decade. People discarding plastic bottles, sandwich clamshells, and other packaging into the environment gave birth to the idea that if resin producers can somehow make a product that will biodegrade in the elements - e.g., sunlight, water, etc. - and disappear, we'll have solved the problem of unsightly plastic packaging on the roadsides and floating in our oceans. Compostable bioresins are designed to react in commercial composting facilities in a matter of weeks when mixed with bio products to be used as mulch.

Most plastic packaging is either film (flexible) or rigid containers. According to a study by the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based market research firm, demand for biodegradable and compostable plastic is projected to rise nearly 20 percent per year to 420 million pounds in 2010. These plastics can be produced from a variety of raw materials, including corn, potato, and wheat starch. Improved grades are now fully biodegradable and compostable. Polylactic acid (PLA) and polyester-based degradables will exhibit the best growth, with PLA demand being stimulated by lowered costs brought about by increased capacity and technology improvements.

Polyester-based degradable use will be stimulated by growing film applications, such as bags. Starch-based plastics will provide good opportunities based on improved formulations and larger market potential. Cellophane, an inherently degradable polymer, will decline marginally as a result of competition from polypropylene films, according to the Freedonia report. Film will remain the dominant application for degradable plastics due to its amenability to diverse bag, liner, and overwrap applications.

The report also says that food packaging is one of the leading uses for degradable plastics. Current applications are relatively small compared to conventional materials, but potential looms large and includes everything from disposable bottles for milk, water, juices and beverages to disposable plates, bowls, and trays.

New Materials and Products
Mirel is a new family of biodegradable and compostable biobased plastics, produced from corn, that is an environmentally responsible alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. The material is a product of a joint venture of Archer Daniels Midland's agribusiness unit, and Metabolix. Mirel is a derivative of corn sugar obtained through a wet milling process that yields a high fructose byproduct, according to Debra Darby, director of marketing communications for Mirel Biobased Plastics.

Mirel resins are high-performance materials that provide resistance to both heat and hot liquids and have physical properties ranging from flexible to rigid. As a result, Mirel may replace oelfin and styrenic-based polymers in a variety of applications and be converted into a wide range of products and packaging solutions, including food service, bags, and personal care and cosmetic packaging. Mirel resins are ASTM-certified for compostable plastics, and for non-floating biodegradable plastics in marine environments. Darby said that currently the material is being tested in customer application trials in a pilot plant that is producing 30,000 to 50,000 pounds per month. ADM is constructing a new plant in Clinton, Iowa, that will have the capacity to produce 110 million pounds of Mirel annually. That plant will be online during the first quarter 2009.

Michelex Corporation has agreed to a partnership with Bethesda, Maryland-based Source Bio-Plastics Inc., in which Source Bio-Plastics will acquire Michelex Plastics' four facilities and equipment to re-establish a significant plastics manufacturing facility in Massena, New York. Source Bio-Plastics will have a 75 percent stake in the company, with Michelex, a molder of cases for CDs and DVDs, owning the remaining 25 percent share. It is expected that both traditional and new products will be produced, as well as drinking water bottles, that use new resins combining nanoparticles with soy-based materials. The partnership between the two companies has received a $4.5 million incentive package granted by Empire State Development of New York. The partnership expects a minimum target of hiring 175 employees over the next three years.

Cereplast Inc., a Hawthorne, California, manufacturer of proprietary biobased, sustainable plastics, announced late last year the location of a new facility that will add 500 million pounds a year to Cereplast's bio-plastic resin production capacity, allowing the company to better serve clients the Midwest and East Coast. The new facility will reach capacity in early 2010, and will employ up to 200 full-time staff as the world's largest bio-plastic resin production facility, according to information released by the company.

One of the company's newest product lines, Biopropylene, the world's first sustainable polypropylene, replaces 50 percent or more of the petroleum-based content of conventional plastic resins with renewable resources such as cornstarch, tapioca, or other starches. Cereplast recently announced an agreement with CSI/Cosmolab to develop bioplastic packaging materials for cosmetics. CSI/ Cosmolab is a leading manufacturer of injection molded packaging for cosmetics and personal care products. The company will use materials from the Cereplast Hybrid Resins family to develop double-walled jars and closures. Harco Enterprises Ltd. will use Cereplast's Compostables bioresin for its NaturesPlast line of custom and standard items for the promotional, restaurant and nightclub businesses.

Fabri-Kal, a Kalamazoo, Michigan-based provider of plastic food service and custom thermoformed packaging solutions, says its new RD5 Alure proprietary container offers a versatile solution for merchandising to-go foodservice products. It is made entirely from crystal clear, 100 percent recyclable APET, an increasingly popular resin that has inherent barrier properties and can be easily recycled.

Fabri-Kal plans significant expansion of the company's operations in Piedmont, South Carolina, with a capital investment of $12 million over five years that includes the installation of an additional production line. The company also plans to open a new state-of-the-art design and manufacturing facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The facility will house Fabri-Kal's Technical Center, Innovation Center, XP Division, a large-scale plastic packaging manufacturing operation and warehouse space. The company will invest $41 million in the project to establish and upgrade a former brownfield site, and is scheduled to open early in the third quarter of 2008.

With petroleum-based resin prices continuing to rise, some companies are going green by simply using less petroleum. Essel Propack Ltd., with facilities in Danville, Virginia, and Mumbai, India, launched its new Etain, a fully recyclable plastic packaging tube made from a combination of virgin and recycled plastic material. Etain was created with the objective to reduce the amount of virgin plastic in tube packaging. The new post-consumer recycled (PCR) tubes will be recycled under Code 2 norms defined by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). Etain contains up to 40 percent PCR high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic materials. The plastic packaging tubes are typically used by Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies for packaging various types of hair care, skin care, pharmaceutical, food products, and cosmetics.

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