The third important driver of the bioplastics market is innovation, in full evidence at the EUBP conference both at the primary research and the product development levels.
A biopolymer we in the packaging industry probably need to start getting excited about is polyethylene furanoate, or PEF. PEF is a new, 100 per cent bio-based polymer whose properties are very similar to PET and recyclable within the PET stream. However, aside from its renewable credentials, PEF performs better than PET, offering remarkable shelf-life and downgauging opportunities in rigid and flexible (BOPEF) applications. As a carbonated soft drink bottle PEF has demonstrated six times better CO2 barriers and ten times better O2 barriers.
In view of the ease with which PEF can be introduced into existing PET processing and converting infrastructure, capacity is the primary challenge. BASF and Avantium’s joint venture Synvina is hurrying to meet expected demand, with efforts presently at pilot plant scale and product reaching the market by 2020. Meanwhile, Corbion has been developing a biocatalytic process to produce renewable FDCA as an alternative to terephthalic acid, as a monomer that can be polymerised into PEF.
Meanwhile, much discussion centred on the potential for biopolymers in flexible packaging – the most challenging material for our current recycling infrastructures due to the variety and complexity of substrates used. Biodegradable flexibles are a potential solution to this problem, with the added benefit that they may present an opportunity to divert food waste away from landfill (much as PLA coffee pods facilitate composting of packaging and grains). As such, developments such as biodegradable functional coatings (such as Fraunhofer ISC’s bioORMOCER®) and bio-based multi-layer barrier films (presented by Kuraray EVAL’s Stefan Corbus) may prove another significant pathway to sustainability.
Impressive material innovations abound across bioplastics. One highlighted at the conference by Marie-Hélène Gramatikoff, CEO of Lactips, is a water soluble, biodegradable thermoplastic made from milk protein. A key application for this is the dissolvable caseine pellets used for dishwasher detergents. This represents an alternative to soluble PVA and is claimed to be the quickest biodegradable plastic in the world. Finally, a mention ought to go to ICEE Containers’ fold-flat boxes – a solution for refrigerated products such as fresh foods and pharmaceuticals, using BASF’s ecovio® plant-based biofoam. ICEE has patented a moulded, living hinge in the substrate, which enables economical flat storage and transportation of this reusable, compostable format.
Thanks to a confluence of regulatory pressure, consumer demand, growing capacity and fast-moving R&D, we can be certain that bioplastics will be an ever more prominent element on the European packaging landscape. Needless to say, the 2019 EUBP Conference will be one of the key dates in the year’s diary.