Bioplastics demand experiencing boom in Europe

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Demand for bioplastics in Europe has experienced its first boom
this year leading to a need formore investments in the sector, says
an industry organisation.

A survey conducted by the European Bioplastics association amongst its 66 members and releasedthis week finds that demand has already reached the same level as last year, expecially in thepackaging sector, with the UK leading the way.

Over the past five years packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradableplastics made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, based on projections that consumers andrecycling regulations will drive demand for environmentally-friendly packaging . Some companies arepredicting that the market will grow by about 20 per cent a year.

In addition, a combination of pricing and retail uptake has led more and more processors to lookat biodegradable natural polymer products as an alternative to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Thesharp rise in the prices for petroleum, a major component of PET and other packaging plastics, hasmade bioplastics a competitive alternative.

"Numerous chains of stores throughout Europe are introducing biopackaging in response to the growing number of consumers who are concerned with depletion of fossil resources and climatechange,"​ the association stated in the survey. "Companies in this sector expect continued strong positive growth in 2007."

The European Bioplastics survey covered issues such as production, new products, converters, development of sales, and market highlightsfor the year, as well as expectations for 2007.

In a preliminary review of the year 2006 the bioplastics industry reported a strong increase in demand. Users' interest has grown across all product sectors. In bioplastics film packaging the very beginning of a boom is evidenced by the strong growth.

Businesses attribute this largely to three aspects -- raised consumer environmental awareness, companies being increasingly prepared to actively support sustainable development, and the sharp rise in raw material and energyprices, the association stated.

Bioplastics are regarded as an innovative solution within various industries said Harald Kaeb,the association's chairman.

"Both the use of renewable resources as well as the biodegradability and compostability of many bioplastics products have become convincing sales and benefitsarguments,"​ he said. "Technical development of the special materials characteristics of bioplastics has progressed to the point where bioplastics are increasingly gaining a competitive edge. Material properties such as the excellent printability with no need for pre-treatment and the glossiness and barrier against gas, oils and fats, can be advantageous in specific applications,for example. for fresh produce packaging."

The growth trend is most evident in Great Britain, Europe's pioneering country for biopackaging,the In September a leading supermarket chain announced that it would change over 500 product lines to biopackaging. The objective is to save 4,000 tons of fossil-based plastics annually. Other British retailers also plan to increasingly adopt bioplastics.

"The number of products, producers and industrial users has increased in equal measure,"​the association stated. "As such, bioplastics are well on the way to achieving the leap from niche market presence to a broader introduction in the medium term."

Currently bioplastics account for less than one percent of the European plastics market.

Following extended development and trial phases, bioplastics products now have become fit for market in specific applicationsectors, the association noted. Encouraged by rapidly growing demand, manufacturers have continued to expand production capacities. However to exploit the application potential that has become evident, further significant investments will be required in thefuture, the survey found.

"Given the high cost and a lead time of at least two years until a new manufacturing plant comes on stream, investors need to be wary of making decisions based on short-termcriteria," the association stated. "The question arises as to whether measures should be created to support the market introduction of innovative renewable products in Europe. The established legal framework made it possible for the renewable energy and biofuels sector to become the growth and innovation powerhouse it is regarded as today. Renewable products lack such measures on a European level."

The results of the association's survey indicate that companies from this sector anticipate continued strong positive growth in 2007.

Food packagers last year faced price hikes of between 30 per cent to 80 per cent for conventional plastics due to the increased cost of petroleum. With the increases some bioplastics products reached full price competitiveness with the traditional oil-based packaging.

Experts, including Berlin-based International Biodegradable Polymers Association & Working Groups (IBAW), estimate that today's bioplastics have a potential to capture about 10 per cent f the present plastic market of 40 million tonnes in Europe. This figure includes packging for food and other consumer goods

In some important areas, technical developments have allowed bioplastic materials to achieve the quality of conventional products made of mineral oil.

Other development efforts are focused on multi-layer films with altered characteristics that could for example improve the barrier characteristics of packaging materials.

"In order to exploit this potential, investments of several billion euros will be required, especially for building larger manufacturing plants," IBAW said in a report released earlier this year.

Over the past few years a number of major packaging manufacturers have released biodegradable products.

One is Amcor, which has teamed up with Plantic Technologies to develop a biodegradable, flexible plastic packaging for confectionary.

Another is US-based NatureWorks, part of Cargill. NatureWorks is one the main mover behind the biodegradable packaging trend with its introduction of polylactic acid (PLA), a corn-based polymer.

Others include Danish-based Danisco, which announced this year that it has produced a plasticiser from hardened castor oil and acetic acid. It is colourless, odorless and completely biodegradable.

Another company competiting in the biodegradable packaging market is UK-based Stanelco. The company markets a natural, biodegradable food packaging based on starch, called Starpol 2000.

Germany-based BASF has also announced it will launch a biodegradable plastic based on renewable raw materials in a bid to meet what it believes will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. The company's Ecovio plastic is made up of 45 per cent PLA from NatureWorks. The other component is BASF's existing biodegradable plastic Ecoflex, which is derived from petrochemicals.

BASF forecasts that the world market for biodegradable plastics to grow by more than 20 per cent per year.

Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk. Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.

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