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Issue 01/2016

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Automotive Foam Basics: Public Procurement

Opinion Biopolymers will

Opinion Biopolymers will weather the crash in petroleum prices By: Ron Buckhalt Before you read this column, you should know that I retired on December 31, 2015 as Manager of the (USDA) BioPreferred Program. So anything I say here is as a private citizen, not a government employee. However I was involved with bioproducts for nearly 40 years and have some institutional knowledge. I would like to first thank, Michael Thielen for allowing me a few paragraphs to reflect on advancements made in the bioproducts industry over the last few decades. But before we discuss the recent advances I think we need to stop for a moment and think about how we got to where we are today, particularly as it relates to bioplastics. Humankind was using biobased products long before they were called natural or some other new catchword. Our paints, inks, coatings, dyes, lubricants, fuels, soaps, and other industrial products were made from plants and animals. It was only when petroleum was discovered in the 1860’s that we begin to move to a hydrocarbon economy away from a carbohydrate economy. There was even an argument about whether we would fuel our vehicles with plant-derived ethanol or petroleum-derived gasoline, or even electricity, and books have been written on the battles so I will not attempt to recount those issues, just be aware of them as part of the changing landscape. For the United States, in the 1930’s there emerged something called the Chemurgic Movement. Several leading industrialists and scientists felt we could create new industrial markets for agricultural materials and help prop up agriculture commodity prices. The 1938 Farm Bill created a series of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) research institutes to work on new industrial products using agricultural commodities. These would become the Agricultural Research Service where I worked in biobased technology transfer for 10 years. Meanwhile oil prices continued to go up and down with wild swings. Every time it seems biobased products were gaining a foothold once again, the price of oil would dip and any market advantage for biobased products disappeared. Finally, following the first world oil embargo in the mid-1970’s it appeared petroleum prices were only going one direction – up. This was true right up until the last few years. As this is being written a barrel of oil was priced at below USD 35. Gasoline in the U.S. is below two dollar a gallon and there are predictions of one dollar a gallon gasoline. It remains to be seen what impact these low petroleum prices will have on the development of alternative biobased feed stocks. However, many very large international industrial chemical companies have committed resources to develop alternative biological sources for many chemicals and are making and selling commercial materials. In the mid-80’s USDA published the findings of a Farm and Forest Task Force that looked at how many acres of agricultural products could be grown to meet industrial product demands. USDA’s Economic Research Service even published yearly updates about the number of acres or hectares that were grown and used to make biobased products. But it was not until 2002 that a decision was made by the Administration and Congress to help develop markets for the tremendous biomass in the U.S. Part of that 2002 Farm Bill was a provision to create a biobased markets development program to include a U.S. Certified Biobased Products label and to carve out a federal procurement preference for the purchase of biobased products. This was to become the BioPreferred program. Michael asked me to talk about the role of bioplastics in this movement. One of the first platforms to have success in the marketplace was PLA, particularly for single use items. But even that had many challenges and major investors pulled out because the technology was not making any money. That is no longer the case. Since those bold first steps there are at least 38 bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/16] Vol. 11

five new pathways to bioplastics and each has different technologies at work. While bioplastics is only 1 % of the total worldwide market it is the fastest growing plastics sector. And with any new industry there will be winners and losers. Some technologies will advance and become profitable. Others will not. I am not sure even a crystal ball can tell us which technologies will succeed and which will fail. However, major world-wide chemical companies have now made significant financial investments to make polymers (not just plastic) using biomass, instead of petroleum. And many of those products are now being marketed commercially. There are also major advances in using bioplastics to produce the covers for our electronic products. And why not as our pocket phones are out of date as soon as we buy them. Same with our laptops. Many of the finished products and intermediate chemicals currently labeled as USDA Certified Biobased Products are either biopolymers or biobased building block chemicals used to make finished biopolymers. Some of you have heard me speak about the Great Garbage Patch of the Pacific Ocean which is filled with petroleum-based plastic particles hundreds of miles wide and miles deep from micro-particles to huge chunks of floating plastic debris. But these dumps exist in many other oceans and they are killing machines for seabirds and turtles as well as other marine life. Since humankind – to a great extent – seems to be unwilling to reduce, recycle, and reuse; and attempts to clean up these garbage patches is a daunting if not impossible task, would it not just make sense to make as many of our plastic materials we use in everyday life with a built-in expiration date preferable with a take-back policy for recycling. At the same time it also makes sense to buy and sell only single use items that can be fully biodegraded in composting facilities and not just break into smaller pieces that persist in the environment for eons. Additionally, research continues into the possible health impacts of using petroleum-based plastics and petroleumbased plasticizers to make containers to hold food and other products we consume. Whether or not there is a health issue with these containers in the final analysis is not the driver. In this case perception is reality. If consumers perceive a possible health issue from petro-plasticizers may exist they are already seeking and are willing to pay for biobased alternatives. One of the fastest growing biobased materials currently labeled by USDA are biobased plasticizers. Since this is an opinion piece, in conclusion I will state that I am bullish on the future of biobased products and bioplastics. I believe we will weather this current round of low oil prices and continue the research to make even better bioplastics and to make them price competitive with petroleum plastics. The price of petroleum will swing back the other way once marginal operations have been driven out of business. Again, my opinion, but it is the belief of many that the current glut of cheaper petroleum is a business practice to bankrupt operators that must have USD 75 – 100 a barrel oil to be profitable. By making bioplastics an integral part of the plastic mix, even with lower petroleum prices, because of unique properties, the industry should be poised to explode when petroleum prices spike again. • EUROPEAN SERIES 12, 13 & 14 April | Jaarbeurs, UTRECHT 12, 13 & 14 April 2016 | Jaarbeurs, Utrecht Your gateway to the Dutch packaging community Bring your Biobased solutions to The Netherlands. Exhibit at Empack 2016. More information: Susanne den Otter +31 (0)162 408 984 SPECIAL FEATURE Biobased Village Including daily Biobased conferences Partner: Empack Benelux @EmpackBenelux #Empack bioplastics MAGAZINE [01/16] Vol. 11 39

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