Sustainable plastics: How far and how fast can we go?
Much of what consumers have seen and heard about plastics in the past year or two can be described, at best, as thought provoking and, at worst, as downright negative. It’s therefore unsurprising that packaging has been the focus of attention, and this industry has been making good progress for some years toward more sustainable options.
But what about plastics that aren’t front of mind for consumers? The automotive plastics market, already valued at more than $31 billion and driven by ongoing lightweighting ambitions, is projected to grow at a CAGR of 11.5% by 2025, according to an April 2019 report from Grand View Research. And in construction, the second highest user of plastics after packaging, expansion will be only slightly slower, at 7.5% between 2018 and 2025, according to another report from Grand View Research, thanks to increased urbanization and infrastructure. With sustainability an increasing priority in industries like these, we need solutions that reduce the need for oil-based polymers and/or additives, or which are simply more biodegradable or recyclable.
Several promising biobased solutions are now coming to market, often instigated or accelerated by collaboration between complementary businesses. Bioplastic PLA resin is already commercially available, thanks to Total Corbion PLA, a 50/50 joint venture for the production and marketing of PLA polymers. It is suitable for bioplastics for a wide range of applications including durable automotive components, and the JV’s recently-opened, fully integrated 75-kT PLA plant has definitively expanded growth opportunities.
Alternatives for additives
But it’s not just with polymers that the plastics sector is making sustainable strides. Biobased alternatives now provide functionality comparable to fossil-based polymer additives. In another co-creation venture, biobased succinic acid holds promise as an environmentally preferable alternative to the traditional petrol-based version for manufacturing solvents and lubricants.
As well as preventing discoloration of the polymer and corrosion of metal parts during polypropylene processing, biobased PATIONIC additives reduce static and improve mold release for manufacturers of car parts. This is essential for optimizing production efficiency and improving aesthetics. Supplementary emulsifying properties can be obtained with additives based on edible, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils.
In EPS products like insulation panels, the benefits expand further. The particle size distribution of the additives for these applications is even narrower, reducing bead agglomeration during processing and, thus, creating a homogeneous coating. Plus, they reduce cooling times (and accelerate production times) and serve as lubricants and dispersants for trouble-free processing. As such, these biobased additives can help cut the amount of traditional chemicals required, simplifying procurement, production and end-of-life handling.
Collaboration for faster rewards
These developments are exciting and already being adopted by some of the world’s most forward-thinking brands. However, much work remains if we are to significantly improve sustainability across the plastics industry. Aiming for serious progress, as quickly as possible, Corbion’s strategy of co-creation sees it collaborating with experts in complementary technologies, like Total in PLA production and BASF in biobased succinic acid. The aim: To develop and commercialize game-changing technologies that allow processors and compounders to retain all the benefits offered by traditional plastics while better protecting the environment for everyone.