Despite yet another report projecting strong future growth rates for bioplastics overall, the plastics industry was rocked last week by news about the dissolution of the alliance between bioresin maker Metabolix Inc. and U.S. agricultural mega-company Archer Daniels Midland. ADM appears to be reacting to lackluster progress in commercializing polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biopolymers by the venture and its Telles LLC sales and marketing arm.
However, in the months preceding this news, there have been announcements about new biopolymer production ventures worldwide, and especially in East Asia. Could Asia become the key geographic region for this still-new sector of the plastics industry? Consider just the following examples, to cite a few:
- an operational bioplastics pilot plant in Malaysia for producing PHA using palm oil, built through a partnership of Malaysian and non-Malaysian players, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA;
- a $150 million (US) partnership between Thailand’s PTT Chemical Public Co. Ltd. and U.S. bioplastics maker NatureWorks LLC (whose other large partner is the agricultural company Cargill), with plans reported for a Thai plant of roughly the same size as the NatureWorks plant in Nebraska, USA;
- a joint development agreement between Metabolix and Korean fermentation process-specialist CJ CheilJedang for producing renewable “C4” chemicals for making plastics, fibers, and other materials; and
- a castor-oil-based nylon production expansion by China-based Suzhou Hipro Polymers Co. Ltd., in which the company reportedly is tripling its capacity this year for making bio-nylons.
Of course, other new bioresin ventures are also starting in South and North America and Europe, so outlooks for the future still appear optimistic for bioplastics’ development worldwide (especially for the development of non-biodegradable bio-based conventional resins). But Asia may have key advantages in terms of low production costs, and from the variety of vegetable matter available there for producing biopolymers.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.