Will we shift from fossil-based to biobased plastic packaging?

Volume 10, Issue 2

In This Issue:

  • Picking the right green claims
  • RENEWABLE

    Will we shift from fossil-based to biobased plastic packaging?

    Biobased plastic packaging is capturing market share from traditional petroleum-based plastic packaging.

    Read More >
  • Picking the right green claims
  • RECYCLING/RECYCLED CONTENT

    Shrink label films float for easy removal, improve RPET yields, quality

    Shrink label film float to prevent contamination of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET).

    Read More >
RENEWABLE >

Will we shift from fossil-based to biobased plastic packaging?

Biobased plastic packaging is capturing market share from traditional petroleum-based plastic packaging. With a number of technologies available or under development, biobased plastic packaging could eventually dominate.

There’s no doubt bioplastics is a growth area. “For example, the biobased polyethylene terephthalate (PET) market is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 68.25% until 2019, per…[Technavio’s] report, Global Biobased Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Market 2015-2019,” says Patrick Krieger, assistant director of regulatory and technical affairs at SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, Washington, DC.

Some biobased plastics such as polylactic acid and polyhydroxyalkanoate are biodegradable; others such as biobased polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and biobased, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are not. However, these biobased versions of traditional petroleum-based resins result in containers and packaging components that are identical in appearance, function and recyclability. As a result, biobased PET, HDPE and PP packaging resins can serve as drop-in replacements for conventional resins.

Whether biodegradable or not, biobased bioplastics offer numerous environmental benefits, including the reduction of carbon footprint and/or global warming potential. “Biobased feedstocks are appealing to some companies and consumers because they reduce reliance on petroleum, capture carbon dioxide, etc.,” says Krieger.

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The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, GA, has filled more than 35 billion biobased PET containers worldwide since 2009 and is sharing its technology with other brand owners. Coca-Cola’s patented PlantBottle technology converts natural sugars found in plants such as sugarcane and bagasse into the ingredients for making PET. Initially, PlantBottle containers consisted of up to 30% plant-based material, but a 100% plant-based container was showcased in 2015 at the Milan World Expo. It relies on BioFormPX™ paraxylene from Virent, Madison, WI. Far Eastern New Century, Taipei, Taiwan, worked with Virent and Coca-Cola to convert the BioFormPX to bio-PET resin. Whether 30% or 100% plant-based, the PlantBottle containers are identical to traditional PET containers in appearance, function and recyclability. By 2020, Coca-Cola intends to switch all products in PET bottles to PlantBottle containers.

Another collaborative venture to commercialize 100% biobased PET containers for soft drinks and spirits involves Suntory Holdings Limited, Osaka, Japan, and Anellotech, Pearl River, NY. Suntory currently uses 30% plant-derived materials for its Mineral Water Suntory Tennensui brands.

The alliance between Anellotech and Suntory supports the development of bio-aromatics including bio-paraxylene, the key component needed to make 100% biobased PET beverage bottles. With a relatively inexpensive feedstock, solid catalyst and one fluid-bed reactor, Anellotech’s proprietary thermal catalytic biomass conversion technology (Bio-TCat) produces 100% biobased “drop-in” paraxylene and other aromatic chemicals at a lower cost and with fewer steps. The single fluid-bed reactor process eliminates the production of the highly oxygenated bio-oil intermediate typically required in multi-step pyrolysis processes, as well as the need to add substantial amounts of costly hydrogen. undefined
Other than biomass and catalyst, there are no further inputs, apart from minor amounts of hydrogen used downstream of the reactor to remove trace impurities prior to further separation of the BTX. As a result, these biobased aromatics can be sold profitably against their identical, petroleum-derived counterparts. Furthermore, because it uses renewable and abundant nonfood feedstocks, such as wood, corn stover and bagasse, the Bio-TCat process is less expensive compared to those that use sugar-based feedstock and avoids competition with the food chain.

Anellotch’s development and testing facility, scheduled to come online before the end of 2016, will confirm scale-up viability of the Bio-TCat process and generate the data needed to design commercial plants. “By focusing on the development of substitute materials to replace petroleum in making everyday consumer products, we are expanding our commitment to reduce the environmental burden of beverage packaging, including reduction of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions,” reports Munehiko Takada, head of the Packaging Material Development Department at Suntory.

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Although most recent conversions center on biobased PET, biobased polyolefins are gaining ground. Tetra Pak Inc., Denton, TX, uses biobased HDPE in the structure of Tetra Rex® Bio-based and Gable Top Bio-based cartons for beverages and other liquid products as well the cartons’ dispensing fitments and closures. The result is a package made of 100% renewable materials (paperboard and biopolymers). Tetra Pak anticipates supplying 100 million of the renewable containers in 2016.

Meanwhile, work continues on biobased polypropylene (PP). FKuR Kunststoff GmbH, Willich, Germany, a supplier of biobased HDPE, has added a biobased PP, Terralene® PP 2509, to its product line. The biobased PP contains 35% renewable content.

Despite these successes, barriers to full adoption remain. As SPI’s Krieger explains: “There are several technological and logistical hurdles that will need to be overcome to see significant increases in the production and use of biobased plastics. With respect to bio-PET, there is not currently a commercial-scale biobased source for purified terephthalic acid (PTA), which is a significant component in PET. Companies such as Amyris, Anellotech, Gevo, Global Bioengergies, and Virent are all looking for ways to meet this demand for biobased PTA…

“Cost is a factor when developing biobased bioplastics, especially when petroleum-based sources are comparatively less expensive. The effect of this is seen throughout the development pipeline, from research and development, to capital investment, to the difference in price in the end products.

“Economies of scale and a lack of time to amortize capital expenditures work against the bioplastics industry. In addition, because this is such a new area of development…there are many fewer plants producing these biobased versions, and demand for them – at a commodity level – outstrips supply.

“Extraction and transport of the feedstock to the polymer plant will require a reinvention of the traditional infrastructure. As biobased feedstocks – be they biogas, crops or agricultural byproduct – are produced in smaller scales than oil or gas production, feedstock sourcing will, by necessity, need to be diversified and much more networked.”

Other barriers include the well-established infrastructure for petroleum-based plastics and concerns about the source of the biomass. If derived from edible crops, supply could tighten, boosting food prices. If derived from agricultural waste, which would be plowed under to nourish the next planting, more fertilizer might be needed, which could increase material and labor costs.

Polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer, is a slightly different story. NatureWorks, Minnetonka, MN, and other producers of PLA currently can meet demand, and PLA is cost competitive. Furthermore, Krieger says, significant work has been undertaken to address and improve PLA’s physical properties such as a low glass-transition temperature and limited barrier properties.

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Although currently produced from corn, NatureWorks is working to shift to a nonfood source for its Ingeo PLA. Its latest effort focuses on developing a process that converts methane, a greenhouse gas, to lactic acid, the building block of Ingeo PLA. The methane-to-lactic-acid research project began in 2013 as a joint effort between NatureWorks and Calysta Energy™, Menlo Park, CA, to develop a fermentation biocatalyst. In 2014, laboratory-scale fermentation of lactic acid from methane utilizing a new biocatalyst was proven, and the U.S. Department of Energy awarded $2.5 million to the project. In 2016 NatureWorks opened a laboratory to support the journey from proof-of-concept to commercialization.

“A commercially viable methane-to-lactic-acid conversion technology would be revolutionary,” states Bill Suehr, COO at NatureWorks. “It diversifies NatureWorks away from the current reliance on agricultural feedstocks, and with methane as feedstock, it could structurally lower the cost of producing Ingeo [PLA]. It is exciting to envision a future where greenhouse gas is transformed into Ingeo-based, compostable food serviceware, personal-care items such as wipes and diapers, durable products such as computer cases and toys, films for wrapping fresh produce, filament for 3D printers, deli packaging, and more.”

The next development step, a 25,000-square-foot pilot plant, should be online in 2018. A $50 million demonstration project could follow by 2022, with a global-scale methane-to-lactic-acid fermentation facility up and running by 2026.

The transition to biobased plastics will require education of all stakeholders. Concerns about diversion of food or natural fertilizer is a prime example. Krieger reports, “As stated by the Bioplastics Feedstock Alliance, ‘Bioplastics are not a significant user of land.’ European Bioplastics estimates that less than 0.02% of arable land will be used to produce bioplastics in 2017.” In addition, he says, “Many new feedstocks for bioplastics are…currently being developed that are independent of the food supply. Switchgrass can be grown on marginal land, and has the added benefit of controlling for erosion. Bioplastics can be made from algae. And companies are also exploring producing bioplastics from another powerful greenhouse gas, methane.”

BIOPLASTICS RESOURCES

Biodegradable Products Institute, Inc., New York, NY 
European Bioplastics e.V., Berlin, Germany 
SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, Washington, DC

SPI Bioplastics Division 
Bioplastics Simplified: Attributes of Biobased and Biodegradable Products report defines “bioplastics” as “partially or fully biobased and/or biodegradable”, clarifies how materials are composed and highlights environmental benefits.

Grand View Research, Inc., San Francisco, CA 
Biobased Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Market Analysis by Application (Packaging, Technical, Consumer Goods) and Segment Forecasts to 2020 report, published November 2014

Research and Markets, Dublin, Ireland 
Global Biobased Polyethylene Market by Application and by Geography - Analysis and Forecast to 2019 report, published June 2015 by MicroMarketMonitor, Pune, India

Global Polylactic Acid Market by Applications - Polylactic Acid Products, Biodegradable Polymers, PLA Compostable, Global Industry Size, Growth, Trends, Strategic Analysis and Forecast, 2014-2021 report, published August 2015 by Occams Business Research and Consulting, Mumbai, India

Technavio, Elmhurst, IL 
Global Biobased PET Market 2015-2019 report, published July 2015 (also available from Research and Markets)

Global Biobased Polymers Market 2015-2019 report, published November 2014

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RECYCLING/RECYCLED CONTENT >

Shrink label films float for easy removal, improve RPET yields, quality

Pentalabel® ClearFloat™ shrink label film from Klöckner Pentaplast, Gordonsville, VA, and RafShrink PO MDO 40 HS polyolefin film from UPM Raflatac, Tempere, Finland, float to prevent contamination of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). The floatable materials meet Design for Recycling Guidelines and ink adhesion protocols set by the Association of Plastics Recyclers, Washington, DC, and improves PET container recycling yield compared to polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) or polyvinyl chloride labels, which sink in the caustic wash.

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“We strive to help improve the efficiencies of the recycling process while maintaining the highest levels of brand presence and consumer impact,” says Bob Schantz, label films director/Americas at Klöckner Pentaplast. “Meeting these marketing and performance requirements and addressing the clarity of the label affords brand owners an opportunity to meet multiple variables in the decision-making equation.”

The Pentalabel ClearFloat material also delivers clarity, processability and durability as well as high shrink percentages for optimal design freedom and visual impact. Especially well-suited for highly contoured shapes, applications include new or redesigned PET containers.

A study by Plastic Forming Enterprises, Amherst, NH, shows the RafShrink PO labels also delivers benefits to the sorting process, improving the near-infrared container detection rate to an average of 92% versus 40% for PETG sleeve labels.

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RECYCLING/RECYCLED CONTENT >

Recycling equipment produces clean RPET for food packaging

MAS Maschinen- und Anlagenbau Schulz, Pucking, Austria, has received a Letter of No Objection from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Washington, DC, for food-contact usage of resin resulting from its polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling process. MAS secondary recycling equipment, available in the United States from eFACTOR3, LLC, Pineville, NC, produces post-consumer rPET suitable for use at levels up to 100% for cold- and hot-filled food packaging.

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RECYCLING/RECYCLED CONTENT >

Luminescent markers could improve container sorting accuracy, speed

Invisible luminescent markers could accelerate the speed and accuracy of sorting containers for recycling. The Plastic Packaging Recycling Using Intelligent Separation Technologies for Materials (PRISM) study, underway in the United Kingdom, relies on existing labeling and decorating methods and would enable quick identification of food-contact plastics, bioplastics, chemical packaging, automotive plastics, black plastics and different grades of a single resin with minor modifications to existing near-infrared sorting equipment. The research study, being led by Brunel University, London, is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Swindon, UK, and scheduled for completion in August 2016.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR >

Hallie Forcinio has covered packaging-related environmental topics for more than 25 years, first as an editor on Food & Drug Packaging magazine (now Packaging Strategies) and more recently as a freelance packaging journalist and principal of Forcinio Communications, an editorial services firm. “My interest in the environment dates back to a high school government class,” she notes. “I was collecting glass, newspapers and aluminum cans for recycling long before my community had a curbside recycling program.” In addition to preparing the TricorBraun Sustainability Times, she contributes articles to numerous trade publications including Pharmaceutical Technology, Dairy Foods, National Provisioner and Healthcare Packaging. She also has served as editor of the PACK EXPO Show Daily.

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