A major theme at K 2010, the giant polymers show held in Germany
recently, was sustainability. But the definition of the green concept is taking
very different directions among the major global resin producers when it comes
to feedstock sources for engineering plastics.
There are three camps:
- There's a big future in plastics made from plant-based renewable resources.
- The best approach is to incorporate as much post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic as possible in new compounds.
- The best route to sustainability is to accelerate efforts to reduce weight of cars and other vehicles through increased focus on reinforcement technologies and improved compounds.
Of course, there may well be some element of each strategy in each camp, but it was interesting to see at K 2010 that most producers strongly stressed one strategy over the other.
Two major companies have placed significant stakes in the ground for the plants-to-plastics approach: DuPont and DSM. Sabic Innovative Plastics likes the PCR route. BASF prefers light weighting approaches.
Here's a rundown of this reporter's perception of the resin production strategies of the following companies.
A display stand at the front of the DuPont exhibit at K 2010 showed close to a dozen applications for its industry-leading portfolio of renewably-sourced engineering plastics. One eye popper was an automotive airbag cover made with renewably sourced elastomer jointly developed with Takata-Petri of Aschaffenburg, Germany.
Marsha Craig, global business manager for renewably sourced performance materials, told Design News that DuPont only intends to introduce biobased products that offer competitive or superior properties to existing products.
DuPont's expanding renewably sourced product line includes Sorona EP engineering plastics, which contains 20 to 37 percent renewably sourced material; Hytrel RS thermoplastic elastomers, which contain 35 to 65 percent renewably sourced material; and Zytel RS polyamides, which contain 63 to 100 percent sebacic acid derived from castor oil.
One sign of the success at DuPont was the announcement this year that capacity at a joint venture bio-PDO resin plant in Loudon, TN will be expanded 35 percent by the middle of 2011.
Jens Hamprecht, head of biodegradable plastics, said in an interview that BASF believes light weighting is generally the best route to address climate change problems such as carbon dioxide emissions. BASF has developed a sophisticated software tool that compares various product or process alternatives and considers the journey through the product's life including production and disposal, looking at both the efficiency and ecological effects. BASF says it will only introduce plastics made with renewable resources if its analysis shows improved properties and environmental benefits over the course of the material's life.
BASF terminated its oxo-biodegradable additive July 1, 2010. The chemical additive was part of the Ciba acquisition in 2009 and was used to manufacture polyethylene mulch films for agricultural use. Meanwhile, BASF is expanding its capacity to make a biodegradable plastic called Ecoflex by 60,000 metric tons by the end of this year. Exoflex is made from fossil fuel feestocks, but is blended with polylactic acid purchased from NatureWorks to produce a biodegradable blend that is partially bio-based.
BASF does have two biobased products: polyamide and polyol.
Sabic Innovative Plastics
Sabic IP made sustainability a major pitch as its K 2010 press conference and announced appointment of a sustainability officer, Robert McKay. Sabic's approach is driven by two factors: the difficulty of producing bioplastics for aromatic polymers and the availability of high-quality plastic waste. "The sources vary around the world," says Thomas J. Stanley, vice president of technology at Sabic IP. Waste appliance components and polycarbonate water bottles are a good source in some parts of the world, while there are ample supplies of discarded CDs and DVDs in others. The newest grades are Noryl (modified polyphenylene ether) Classico PCR resin, which contains 20 percent post-consumer recyclate; Cycoloy PCR resins, based on 30 to 50 percent polycarbonate from water bottles, CDs, and other sources; and Lexan EXL PCR resins, which have polycarbonate post-consumer content of up to 80 percent.
The Dutch-based company is in the midst of transforming itself from a commodity chemicals producer to a company focused on high-value emerging technologies. Renewable resources fit right in. The corporate venturing subsidiary of DSM invested $20 million in Tianjin Green Bio-Science Co. to build China's largest manufacturing plant for polyhydroxyalkanoates, which are produced by bacteria that process glucose or starch. DSM is also partnering with a French company to produce polybutylene succinate (PBS), a synthetic aliphatic polyester with similar properties to PET. DSM is also investing in furanic chemical feedstocks for bioplastics through Avantium, which is building a pilot plant on the DSM manufacturing campus in the Netherlands called Chemelot. DSM has several other renewably sourced plastics.
A few general points need to be made:
- These four resin producers are highlighted here because they seemed to make the clearest points about their direction on climate change issues at K 2010.
- All of these companies emphasize that efficient and clean manufacturing are important factors in sustainability.
- Most of the action in bioplastics is coming from smaller, technology-driven companies. In this way, the emerging bioplastics industry reflects the early years of the biotechnology industry.