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Issue 03/2016

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  • Bioplastics
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bioplasticsMAGAZINE_1603

Events From resin to

Events From resin to retail Biopolymers world gathers at Innovation Takes Root For three days at the end of March, Orlando, Florida was the stomping ground for anyone and everyone in any way involved in biopolymers, and especially in NatureWorks’ Ingeo PLA. The three-day Innovation Takes Root event was hosted this year for the fifth time by NatureWorks and consisted of one day of workshops followed by two days of actual conference during which the latest developments in the biopolymers market were examined against the backdrop of the broader policy, legislative, and societal perspective. One of the issues that came up, not once but several times, was that of the challenges bioplastics were facing in the current era of low oil (prices). Yet the general feeling was – and nobody expressed this more forcefully or coherently than NatureWorks CEO Marc Verbruggen in his closing speech – that despite the abundance of bleak headlines, the outlook is not all that somber. “Oil’s been at this level before,” Verbruggen pointed out. “It was at this level when we started out. And the economics of NatureWorks function in this environment.” As long as the corn price stays low, that is. “The sugar to polymer yield – currently 1.25 kg of sugar to produce 1 kg of PLA – determines how cost competitive you can be,” added Verbruggen. Because corn is cheap, NatureWorks can compete at an oil price of USD35 a barrel, although he also conceded that achieving a sufficient economy of scale has been a critical factor. “When we started, we built a huge plant. Looking back, if our shareholders had known what they were going to encounter, I question whether they would have pressed ahead. There’s been a steep learning curve,” Verbruggen said. However, as became evident over the course of these three days that, far from fading into oblivion, bioplastics are coming increasingly into their own. Obviously, at this conference PLA in all its facets was the main focus: as a raw material used for compostable serviceware or packaging, blended with PHA, in fibers for nonwovens and as 3D printing filaments, all of which were topics discussed in the presentations held by the 43 speakers at the conference. At the plenary sessions, speakers from WWF, IKEA, Nestlé, the Green Sports Alliance and many others addressed the use of bioplastics within the wider context of sustainability, public engagement and responsible stewardship. As Per Stolz, sustainability director at IKEA, said: “IKEA is big – we have impact. And with size, comes responsibility.” Or Justin Zellner, of the Green Sports Alliance, a movement that leverages sports as a means for environmental advocacy, who talked about the huge impact on supply chain economics which sports have – in addition to an “unbelievable visibility” – and the opportunities this offers, not only for greening the supply chain, but also for greening operations and for fan engagement in program initiatives. “Using compostable serviceware, composting food waste,” he said. “We can inspire them to do this at home, as well.” Erin Simon, of WWF summarized it well: “Together we can!” The plenary sessions were followed by a program of parallel market-focused sessions centered on topics including single serve beverage delivery systems; new developments in NatureWorks’ Ingeo flexible packaging; advancements in dairy, dessert and chilled snack packaging; food serviceware; new horizons for Ingeo in 3D printing; and Ingeo fibers and nonwovens advancements. One of the keynote speakers was Jen Owen, whose presentation on the use of 3D printing technology to provide hands to children unable to afford prostheses, offered a visceral demonstration of the opportunities this new technology presents. (See cover story on pp 14). Marc Verbruggen also zeroed in on the developments in 3D printing technology in his closing presentation, pointing put that additive manufacturing or 3D printing with Ingeo PLA is one of the fastest growing markets for this biopolymer. “It’s an exciting area. Two conferences ago, it was just emerging,” he said. “One conference ago, we recognized that it was a theme. And now, at ITR 2016, we’ve not only got a full-fledged 3D printing platform on the market – a range of purpose-developed filament, with full suite technical support and an inhouse development lab - we’re now also announcing the launch of a new grade that can compete directly with ABS.” He also discussed the company’s aim is to have a methane to lactic acid pilot plant in place within another three to six years, projecting that the monetization of carbon will be achieved over the next five years. “Methane is a true game changer,” he explained. “Cellulosic feedstock – if that’s what you’ve got, use it. But sugar from cellulosics is a long, hard and expensive process. Is it helpful to use plants?” he asked. “Why not forget the intermediates? Not using plants solves a lot.” He continued, pointing out that “you could never be too cost competitive”. “As a company we have to make money. Sugar from methane costs 0.02 cents a pound. From corn, it’s 14 cents and sugar, 15 cents a pound,” he stressed. Another key development at NatureWorks has been the ongoing process of further diversifying, not just 12 bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/16] Vol. 11

Events By Karen Laird markets, but also the product mix. “We looking beyond just PLA for packaging,” he said. “We’re rethinking the business we’re in. We’re getting into compounding and again, are specifically targeting ABS with new Ingeo formulations that can not only replace, but outperform ABS,” said Verbruggen. Another project in the pipeline concerns the development of wipes and diapers. Marc Verbruggen NatureWorks has also moved into performance chemicals, using lactidebased building blocks to develop functional initiators and phase III copolymers, to name but a few. “We’re developing a portfolio of tunable performance products,” he explained. “We realized: why not look at the monomer? We can formulate – so why let others do it?” Looking ahead, he pointed out that it took NatureWorks 15 years to get to where the company is now – “a positive EBIDTA for the past 23 consecutive months “ – and that in another 20 years, looking back at the high growth today, it will be clear that this was just the introductory stage. “What is important is that bioplastics are now in the game,” said Verbruggen. “It takes time to get to scale. The growth is ahead of us.” He continued: “The next decade, we’ll see how technological investment translates into next generation capacity (…) and if it works, no one will ever build a plant based on sugar ever again. Until we’re there, we’ll be expanding the Blair corn-based facilities, as a bridge. We need to have capacity.” Karen Laird (left), Jen Owen Concluding on an optimistic note, he declared that the mindset is changing. “And that’s how we can get on that growth curve. Brand owners are willing to make that investment in people and capital. And, as early adapters who’ve done the heavy lifting, we’re finally moving towards more competitors - which is what we want. We need competitors! Customers don’t want to be fully dependent on us as a single supplier. We welcome competitors, so we can get up that growth curve together.” www.innovationtakesroot.com bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/16] Vol. 11 13

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