Bio-based plastics are being considered seriously in almost every product sector in which plastics are used. But will their higher prices keep them mostly in small niches of products for which consumers are willing to pay a premium price? This question came up at October’s GPEC conference, where CMAI managing director Anthony J. Palmer spoke about the economics of bio-based intermediary chemicals for creating polymers.
Considering some recent news, one answer to the above question could be “no” – because bio-based plastics are already becoming widespread in low-cost applications. In at least one high-volume packaging application – beverage bottles – bio-based plastic is becoming a well-publicized drop-in replacement for fossil fuel-based material. Examples include Coca-Cola’s “PlantBottle” (with up to 30% bio-based content from the bio-ethanol-based mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) used for the PET polymer) and PepsiCo’s new bio-bottle made from PET completely synthesized from both bio-based MEG and purified terephthalic acid. However, one wonders what kinds of excess costs these giant packaging users are absorbing in order to provide these green, public relations-friendly bottles.
Palmer of CMAI spoke more about bio-based chemical intermediaries in general, and specifically about the costs of those used to create various kinds of polymers. Because of these materials’ current costs, he said successfully marketing a plastic product that’s based on bio-based chemicals typically will require understanding whether the product “can be positioned as a premium brand” when substituting it for products based on fossil fuels. Thus for high-end sports products, for example, customers may be willing to pay more for bio-based content.
But what about packaging plastics, other than the Coke and Pepsi exceptions? Packaging makers rely on commodity-based materials, where low cost is key. So smaller and specialized product brands face a challenge when using higher-cost bioplastic packaging. After all, in consumers’ eyes, the “product” itself is, of course, not the packaging, but rather what it contains. So while using PLA for salad trays may attract notice from purchasers of high-end organic lettuce, clever solutions will be needed for penetrating the broader market with similar bio-based plastics packaging.
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.