Biodegradable biopolymers can be used to make food packaging, drinking straws, cups, bottles, trash bags and bottles
The global market for plastics is expected to hit US$1.175 trillion by 2020. That’s comparable to the gross domestic product of Mexico.
If bioplastics could garner a 10 percent share of the worldwide market for plastics, it would become a $110 billion industry.
Sales now aren’t close to that figure, but it’s still an exciting time in the bioplastics business, said Richard Ivey, marketing manager for Danimer Scientific, a United States company making bioplastic from canola oil.
“The amount of inquiries and people reaching out to us, looking for sustainable alternatives, has exponentially grown,” Ivey said from his office in Bainbridge, Georgia, the headquarters of Danimer Scientific.
Over about the last decade, Danimer scientists have developed biopolymers that are biodegradable and compostable. Their core technology is a biopolymer called PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), which can be used to manufacture food packaging, drinking straws, cups, bottles, trash bags, bottles and more.
PHA is made from a fermentation process where soil bacteria consumes canola oil. The end product is a bioplastic powder that is combined with other biopolymers to produce biodegradable plastic resins.
Danimer Scientific holds 125 patents in 20 countries for its technology and later this year the firm will enter a new phase. They have been retrofitting a manufacturing plant in Kentucky and it should be open by September.
“It will be the world’s first PHA commercial production plant,” Danimer Scientific chief executive officer Stephen Croskrey said last year.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of companies are hoping to take advantage of a boom in bioplastics. Last year was difficult for petroleum-based plastics because of a torrent of negative news about plastic accumulating in the world’s oceans and harming marine life. As a result, Britain announced a plan last April to ban all single-use plastic items.
Bioplastics are viewed as more ethical than petroleum-based plastics because they are manufactured from sustainable feedstocks, such as crops, and some bioplastics break down rapidly in landfills. Research and Markets, a consultancy, has predicted that the global market for bioplastics will be worth $43 billion by 2022, compared to $17 billion in 2017.
Danimer and its canola oil bioplastic is in a good position to fill a share of the growing market because it has partnerships with two massive companies — PepsiCo and Nestle.
It has developed a biodegradable potato chip bag, in collaboration with PepsiCo, and this January Danimer signed a deal with Nestle to develop biodegradable plastic bottles.
Danimer doesn’t plan to manufacture plastic bottles, chip bags, garbage bags or any sort of plastic products. The company will produce bioplastic resins, or pellets.
“Customers can use (it) … in existing equipment to make their (plastics),” Ivey said. “That’s something we’ve invested heavily in … formulations that will work in existing equipment.”
The formulations aren’t 100 percent PHA. Danimer combines PHA polymers with other bio-polymers to manufacture its bioplastic pellets.
“Almost everything we’re working on is blended formulations,” Ivey said. “From an economic standpoint, it makes more sense to blend the material…. As our economies of scale improve, that might change.”
Danimer’s Kentucky plant is expected to open later in 2019. The company’s focus, for the next few years, will be refining the process and proving the technology can work on a commercial scale. The canola oil for the plant will likely come from canola growers in the U.S. southeast.
Down the road, Danimer hopes to open more PHA manufacturing plants, possibly in Canada or the U.S. northern Plains.
“(If) we go to build another plant, we’ll probably build it closer to our main raw material source, which would be canola,” Ivey said.
It requires about one pound of canola to produce one lb. of PHA, Ivey said.
In 2017, the world produced about 348 million tonnes of plastics. In comparison, Canada produced about 21 million tonnes of canola in 2017.
Ivey said it’s difficult to estimate how much canola the plant in Kentucky will use annually because it depends on the ratio of PHA to other biopolymers in Danimer’s bioplastic pellets.