31 Januar 2006

Bioplastics at the Leading Edge of Change

Renewable Raw Materials Make their Entry in the Plastics Industry

In the light of last year’s developments, the Industry Association IBAW draws a positive picture of the bioplastics sector. In 2005, the European-oriented Association welcomed a record number of new members.

Remarkable is the fact that not only leading manufacturers and processors of bioplastics are joining the Association but as well major brand owners and agricultural feedstock companies.

According to the Association, the increasing importance of this technology is due to several factors. Improved functionality of bioplastics and their growing market lead to more interest. Moreover, the risks created by imports and increasing costs for fossil raw materials play as much a role as climate change, whose negative effects are becoming increasingly pronounced.

In consequence the plastics industry is putting more and more emphasis on the use of renewable raw materials. Due to last year’s price hikes of 30 to 80% for conventional plastics, many companies are meanwhile looking for alternative products.

Some bioplastics products have already reached full competitiveness. In general, the price difference between materials made of renewable raw materials and standard plastic materials has decreased considerably.

In 2005, sugar and starch were less expensive raw materials than mineral oil. With regard to the optimised manufacturing processes and improved cost-competitiveness of the future, the long-term perspectives for bioplastics are promising.

The number of manufacturers of bioplastic products is worldwide strongly increasing and more competition will give further momentum to this development, according to the Industry Association.

The increased market interest is as well due to the numerous achievements in technology and product development. In some important areas of application, bioplastics have achieved the quality of conventional products made of mineral oil.

In the focus of interest are applications in the packaging sector, in agriculture and in the disposal sector. In 2005, major manufacturers of mobile phones, computers and audio/video entertainment devices reported as well progresses in the use of biomaterials. A new trend is the combination of commercialised biomaterials, thus creating new functional characteristics and special benefits.

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

The Association underlines the imperative of the establishment of renewable feedstock. Modern industry and society are highly dependent on fossil raw materials. This is not only true for energy supply, today a central theme of many discussions, but as well for important sectors such as the plastics industry.

The major hike in crude oil prices and the insecure raw material supply caused by political conflicts pose many risks for the plastics industry. “In view of the long development cycles for plastics that usually take 20 to 30 years from invention to widespread application, we must look for alternatives in time”, explains IBAW Chairman Harald Kaeb.

However, the bioplastic industry faces as well considerable risks, since bioplastics still only have niche markets. Experts estimate that today’s bioplastics have a technological potential of about 10% of the present plastic market of 40 million tons in Europe.

In order to exploit this potential, investments of several billion euros will be required, especially for building larger manufacturing plants.

In this context, the IBAW stresses the importance of framework conditions. Compared to renewable energies and biofuels, there is less support for products made of renewable raw materials. A first measure to promote the technology is the exemption given to biopackaging in the German Packaging Ordinance of May 2005.

The Association is asking for further measures that will pave the way for a widespread market introduction.

According to Mr. Kaeb, the bioplastics industry is at the leading edge of a development that will spread to other oil-dependent industry sectors in the coming decades.

Renewable raw materials from agriculture are a good solution: They can be grown in countries that do not possess crude oil resources. They are climatefriendly because of their reduced carbon dioxide emissions.

With a yield of 2 to 3tons per hectare, millions of tons of plastics could be produced on farmland avoiding set-aside programmes in Europe. “If we want, we can do differently”, this is Mr. Kaeb’s conviction.

“What we need right now is a larger avenue for our products and more start-up support so that the opportunities offered by bioplastic technology can be fully exploited as soon as possible”.

Source: IBAW-Pressrelease Jan. 30, 2005.

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