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Contributed by Dr. Masha Petrova, MVP Consulting Solutions, LLC and Joe Garner, American Chemical Society

 

The field of Biopolymers is growing rapidly and with that growth comes renewed debate on  what exactly constitutes a biopolymer. In addition, in today’s fast-paced chemical industry, it is crucial for a scientist to be able to quickly assess real industry issues and have hands-on experience to be able to solve real-world problems. Sci-Mind™ Biopolymers, launching this October, is bringing  together experts from different backgrounds and opinions to help scientists, engineers and business professionals learn more about the latest developments in the field.

 

Biopolymers Going Global

The bioplastics and commodities markets constitute a significant portion of the biopolymers market. As of today, the bioplastics industry accounts for only about 1% of the total  global plastics market. However, a recent report from European Bioplastics estimates the production capacity in North America is to grow from 26.7% of the total capacity  in 2010 to 32.9% in 2015.1

 

Bioplastics production and use has been a solid part of the European market for more than two decades. European legal framework and political strategies provide incentives to stimulate the  market. In North America, the bioplastics market continues to experience significant growth. One reason is due to the addition of new manufacturing facilities. Another is an increased focus on sustainability, such as the sustainability policy enacted by major brand owners. In addition, initiatives from the current U.S. Administration are creating a strong momentum for green technologies. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program has taken the important step in promoting bioplastics at the federal procurement level. 1

 

In 2012, the two most influential commercial biodegradable (and bio-based) polymers were polylactic acid (PLA) and starch-based polymers, accounting for about 47% and 41%, respectively, of total biodegradable polymer consumption. However, product improvements and increased R&D have lowered costs and made PLA more feasible in many applications. Technological advances have also improved bacteria and yeast strains to produce lactic acid feedstock on a larger scale. 2

 

NatureWorks, a Classic Biopolymer Case Study

Given the diversity of  players in the bioplastics field, Sci-Mind Biopolymers has teamed up with ACS Green Chemistry Institute® to present the NatureWorks case study. In this classic case study, Sci-Mind learners explore business and technological aspects of producing the product, NatureWorks PLA.

 

NatureWorks began as a joint venture between Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical Company. In 2002, they received the prestigious Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S  Environmental Protection Agency for its development of the first synthetic polymer class to be produced from corn.

 

NatureWorks, the company, develops and produces NatureWorks PLA, a trademarked, bio-based plastic resin named for the polylactic acid that comprises the base plant sugars. Not only are PLA resins derived from a renewable resource, but they also have an additional benefit of being compostable (safely biodegradable) and even infinitely recyclable, meaning that they can be reprocessed into the same product repeatedly.

 

Using this case study, learners in Sci-Mind discuss various business aspects of company formation, R&D barriers, and  issues of product positioning in marketing PLA as a unique resin in a mature plastics market. Just as important, Sci-Mind learners examine how this product  was conceived and launched through to high-volume production. What lessons were learned? How can this experience inform future marketing and scale up of novel  biopolymer products?

 

One unexpected issue described in the case study concerns genetically modified (G.M.) corn feedstock. Since NatureWorks was unable to control corn sources coming to the mill, G.M. became a significant obstacle to marketing NatureWorks PLA. The case  study describes how Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, decided to move forward in a sizable partnership with NatureWorks in order to use PLA fibers in its products in 2002. When Patagonia discovered that the corn feedstock used to create PLA was genetically modified, they abandoned the partnership.To add insult to injury, they even launched a publicity campaign against PLA.

 

Despite such setbacks, by 2005, NatureWorks was the only company in the world capable of producing  large-scale, bio-based resins that exhibited standard performance traits such as durability, flexibility, and strength, at a competitive market price, according to the ACS Green Chemistry Institute® case study.

 

But that was 2005…What about today, almost 10 years later? What are the issues currently facing the bioplastics and biopolymers industry? What is the status of PLA materials -- has any other company succeeded in overcoming business and technological challenges associated with this material? What other bio-derived polymers have achieved the success of PLA?

 

These are important questions to examine for any professional working in bio-plastics, food, or medical polymer industry, whether they are scientists or business developers. These are also questions that Sci-Mind learners explore in the ACS Biopolymers cohort, launching October of 2014.

 

If you are interested in being involved in this unique learning opportunity and finding out more about the science and business of biopolymers, register here: http://proed.acs.org/products-services/sci-mind/biopolymers/

 

References

1 The  Society of the Plastics Industry, the Bioplastics Council, April 2012 Report

2 IHS  Chemical CEH Biodegradable Polymers Marketing Research Report, November 2012

 

 

 

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