Bioplastics go mainstream

There is no shortage of conferences that promote bioplastics by showcasing the latest research and highlighting their environmental performance. However, as bioplastics move out of the lab and into the mainstream of the plastics industry, potential users in the plastics industry want to know more about how to process these new polymers, and the properties that they can expect from them. Unfortunately, few conferences have focused on the industrial use of bioplastics.

SCI hosted the first major symposium in the UK on Bioplastics Processing & Properties at Loughborough University on Thursday 23 April 2009. In keeping with SCI’s remit – ‘Where science meets business’ – this conference provided a forum and various networking opportunities for stakeholders such as biopolymer producers, end-users and researchers, and facilitate the exchange of information about bioplastics utilisation and opportunities for innovation.

The focus was on commercially available bioplastics such as cellulosics, polylactic acid (PLA) and thermoplastic starch polymer (TSP), to provide an update on the current status of biorenewable polymers as replacements for conventional polymers in applications such as packaging. Speakers discussed the regulatory environment; packaging design best practice; consumer acceptance and regulatory compliance; advances in additives; and improvements in biopolymers.

Current worldwide consumption of biorenewable plastics is well over half a million tonnes (including bio-polyethylene produced from sugarcane in Brazil), and is growing at a rate of 25% per year. Within this, durable renewables such as bio-PE and bio-polyamide (PA11) are expected to grow faster than biodegradable plastics such as TSP. Key end-use markets are packaging, construction and automotive.

Dr John Williams of the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) and Dr Noreen Thomas of Loughborough University chaired the sessions. Nine speakers will make presentations on topics including environmental impact and end-of-life options; biobased composites; bioplastic packaging film replacing conventional plastics; extruding biopolymers on conventional extrusion equipment; how masterbatches can enable the processing of biopolymers; and experiences of bioplastic processing in Brazil.

Delegates included packaging strategy managers; packaging manufacturers and designers; polymer processors, particularly those considering use of biopolymers; processing equipment manufacturers; biopolymer producers; polymer additive and masterbatch manufacturers; and technical and research managers.

A core objective for the conference was to bring together key business people with scientists involved in bioplastics research and applications development, to gain an overview of the issues associated with the use of biorenewable plastics. To this end, twenty researchers in the field presented posters, of which three were presented orally. The conference concluded with a reception, at which the BioResources Group will award a £250 prize for the poster judged to have the best commercial potential. An important part of the reception was a ‘speed-networking’ event, at which participants will have the opportunity to meet and exchange information with one of two groups of delegates:

Technical, including bioplastics processing, properties, additives and performance; this will include Loughborough University Department of Materials

Commercial, including bioplastics applications, marketing and business development, markets, regulation, disposal and recycling.

For those who are interested, there will be an option to stay over for a second day, for more detailed discussions with Loughborough University Department of Materials, and to view its facilities, which include polymer characterisation and surface characterisation, as well as pilot-scale polymer processing.

The conference is organised by SCI’s BioResources Group in collaboration with SCI’s Process Engineering Group, and in conjunction with Loughborough University’s Department of Materials. The NNFCC, Biofpr journal, Materials Knowledge Transfer Network, Novamont SpA, and Loughborough University’s Sustainability Research School and Materials Research School are providing sponsorship.

NNFCC included this conference in its Renewable Polymer Thematic Working Group (TWG) series of workshops and seminars. The TWG brings together representatives from all sectors of the supply chain to develop a committed and dynamic network, and acts as a focal point to facilitate technology, identify barriers to further market development and propose strategies to overcome these hurdles.

Peter Reineck
BioResources Group

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