The time for bioplastics is now!
It is six years since INDEX™20 exhibitors Fitesa and NatureWorks, along with Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem, announced a nonwoven composed of not one, but two bio-based polymers in a sheath-core, bicomponent configuration.
The sheath comprised Braskem’s ‘I’m green’ polyethylene and the core was made from NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA, both 100% biobased. The product was extremely soft, thanks to the bio-PE outer sheath, yet strong and robust due to the Ingeo core, but it is fair to say that this product was before its time, because the time for bioplastics is definitely right now.
The forecasts for the growth of bioplastics in recent years, however, have been subdued, and at the last year’s EDANA Outlook conference, Alexander A. Koukoulas, Managing Director of A2K Consultants, provided a few explanations as to why this has been the case.
“Biorefineries have the potential to drive the sustainable materials manufacturing platforms of the future,” he said, “but there have been incentives and mandates in place favouring the development and production of biofuels in the USA, and unfavourable taxes in Europe that have dampened investments.”
So far, there have been two generations of biorefinery, with very different levels of viability in terms of the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs) they achieve, he explained. The first generation is based on feedstocks of plant and animal-based starch, sugars, fats and oils processed through chemical or enzymatic catalysis, which achieves a GHG reduction of around 20% compared to petroleum-based processing.
The second generation employs agricultural residues, energy crops, forest residues and municipal solid waste processed through catalysis or gasification process to achieve substantial GHG savings of between 50-60%.
“Over the past ten years, the United States has made enormous investments in the pursuit of second-generation biofuels derived from lignocellulosic sugars, motivated by their inherently low-cost, the potential for drastically reducing carbon emissions and the promise of job creation, especially in rural communities.” Koukoulas said. “Unfortunately, while significant technical progress has been made, they have yet to achieve commercial viability due to their inability to compete with conventional fuels on price. Several years ago, researchers and developers recognised these technical challenges and began shifting their focus from lignocellulosic ethanol to ‘drop-in’ fuels, in the hope that enhanced compatibility with the existing liquid fuels infrastructure would make these fuels more cost competitive.”
Another speaker at the Outlook conference, however, explained why a surge in the development of bioplastics, rather than biofuels, is now likely, and especially in Europe.
Richard Knowlson of RPK Consulting, on behalf of Dan-Web, said that it is now almost certain that both nonwoven wipes and feminine hygiene products will be targeted in the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive.
The first phase of the directive will concentrate on the ten products most commonly found discarded on European beaches and the list will be finalised in July 2020. In July 2021 laws will then come into force requiring such products to carry prominent warning labels, with extended producer responsibility for their clean-up, collection and disposal coming into place in December 2024. Disposable baby diapers will escape action in this first phase.
A similar situation is arising in North America, beginning with the California Circular Economy and Plastics Pollution Reduction Act.
This is likely to lead to a scramble for non-plastic raw materials for such nonwoven-based products, including wood pulp, viscose, starches, cotton, lyocell, cellulose derivatives, flax/hemp/sisal etc., PHA and proteins.
“The textile industry uses four times more of these fibres and pays more for them, so there will be competition for raw materials and for availability on the existing nonwovens manufacturing lines that can process them,” Knowlson said.
Unless that is, bioplastics can rapidly rise to the challenge.
Enter another INDEX™20 exhibitor, polypropylene manufacturer Borealis, which has just entered into a strategic co-operation for the production of renewable polypropylene with Neste.
Polypropylene, of course, is the key polymer employed in the manufacture of all nonwoven-base absorbent hygiene products (AHPs).
Neste, headquartered in Espoo, Finland, produces bio-based alternatives to conventional fossil-based feedstocks for the production of polymers and chemicals and now has an annual production capacity of three million tonnes of renewable products. With its proprietary NEXBTL technology, it can utilise nearly any bio-based oil or fat as raw material, including lower-quality waste and residue oils, to produce various premium-quality renewable products.
Borealis plans to use Neste’s renewable propane, produced in Rotterdam, to create an entire portfolio of applications based on renewable-PP. This marks the first time that Borealis has used bio-based feedstock to partially replace fossil feedstock in commercial production of PP and it will also be the first time ever that renewable propane dehydrogenation is carried out on an industrial scale. The high-quality product will offer the same product properties as conventional PP and be fully recyclable, the companies say.
Borealis will start using Neste’s 100% renewable propane at its facilities in Kallo and Beringen in Belgium before the end of 2019.
This is just one in a flurry of projects that have recently been announced, seeing renewed interest in bioplastics and notably for both polypropylene and polyester.
Third generation bioplastics, meanwhile, which are very much at the start of development, are being based on algae or atmospheric CO2 processed via cultivation or extraction, and their impact could be transformational, with GHG reductions of above 90%.
This is a subject that will certainly be a major talking-point at INDEX™20.