PLA: biodegradable and biodurable
Benvic's Italian brand, too, is pursuing a dual course, as it brings two families of PLA products to the market, both based on biomass.
“One is biodegradable; the other is bio-durable for different applications and both are bio-based,” explained Bortolon. “We want to avoid oil-based plastics: despite a short-term benefit for costs, long term they are not a sustainable solution.”
So what is PLA? “Polylactic acid is very well known material. Starting from corn or sugarcane, via fermentation you produce lactic acid, and then via a chemical reaction produce the polylactic acid. The ratio between sugar and the polymer is 1.4 kilos sugar for 1 kilo of polymer, which is very favourable,” he said.
He continued: “The carbon footprint is also far smaller. We achieve around 0.5 kg of CO2 per kilo of product. All other oil-based plastics are above 4.5 kg of Co2 per kg of polymer. So the benefit is there. And: we are talking here about PLA but almost all the biopolymers are in the same situation.”
In the area of bio-durables, Plantura is active mainly in the automotive and the furniture sectors. In furniture, the company’s first customer was a French furniture company for whom it has been producing the bioplastic seats for a line of chairs.
Recently, Plantura has also supplied its durable grade PLA to leading Italian furniture company Kartell to produce their signature pastel-coloured chests of drawers and chairs. The company is also working with Plantura on various new projects.
While the motivation may partly be due to marketing purposes, Kartell is also interested in developing a more sustainable product, said Bortolon.
“Because the performance of the product is quite interesting – it offers good UV resistance, the colouring is fantastic and the appearance is high-gloss, like an ABS. The material is over 84% bio-sourced – there are some additives inside that are not bio, but these are the current technical constraints we must deal with.”
The situation in the automotive industry is a similar one. The company launched in 2007 with Roechling Automotive as a partner, aiming to develop bio-based plastic applications for vehicles. The result was an under-the-bonnet application, made from a patented Plantura grade with a performance comparable with polyamide. Since then, Plantura has developed numerous under-the-bonnet parts. The company guarantees to its automotive customers that the used plastic is recoverable via mechanical recycling.
“We have a new project with various OM’s for different under bonnet applications, like filter boxes, active grill shutters, so quite a lot of potential business. The challenge here is the price. Compared with standard products, it is higher, so we need to have a specific strategy for carmakers to adopt this material. It is not a technical issue. The technical aspects have already been resolved; so PLA can substitute PA and PP in different applications under the bonnet.”
Coffee capsules – a logical application?
Coffee capsules are an extremely interesting application area for Plantura. The company has developed a range of Nespresso-compatible and other capsules, all of which are industrially compostable. However, there is also a huge demand from consumers and brand owners for home compostable capsules. While making a home compostable material is easy, said Bortolon, meeting the requirements for coffee packaging with this material is not.
“However, I think we have one of the best industrial compostable solutions available, which is produced in Italy and in the Netherlands by our Dutch partner, ATI (Advanced Technology Innovations B.V.) ,” he said. This company has developed a technology to produce the capsules in a different way, through injection moulding. Customers are supplied with a turnkey system that includes the filter and the closure with the capsule.
“It is quite complicated, users are looking for Nespresso compatible – or some other system and don’t realise how much technology goes into this product,” he pointed out.
In packaging, Plantura is working on the development of a home compostable coffee capsule, but there are a lot of restrictions, said Bortolon. The combination of required material properties - high-temperature resistant, water-resistant, home compostable - is very difficult to realise, while good barrier properties are also needed. “The coffee is stocked in the supermarket for 2-3 months, and has to stay fresh.”
The company is also developing a bio-based container for cosmetics and has a new blow moulding grade of PLA for this application in the pipeline that is currently being tested by our cosmetics partners. “That will become available this year,” said Bortolon.
A further focus is compostable barrier film for food packaging, i.e. for fresh meat, vegetables. PLA generally has poor gas barrier properties, which has made it less suitable for these applications.
“Together with our Italian partner companies we have created a transparent film with a good oxygen barrier,” said Bortolon. “It is still in a developmental stage but will be industrially available before summer when it will be officially presented”.
Mechanical recycling is another area the company is studying. “Because of the shortage of material, we are always interested in recycling products. And we have a few developments: we’ve demonstrated that it is possible to improve the performance of PLA, so this is one of the key developments in the future. We are very interested in looking at second life PLA and industrial scraps of PLA. That is a source we can handle properly,” he explained.
The company already recycles its post-industrial thermoforming scrap from coffee capsules back into the production line and has partner companies that collect, grind and recycle material from other sources, as well.
But, said Bortolon: “With mechanical, and also chemical recycling – which we don’t believe offers opportunity for bio-based plastics - you add a lot of CO2 emissions, which means you exceed the CO2 emissions rates for virgin PLA. That’s the issue: there is no benefit on CO2 emissions to be gained. So we prefer organic recycling wherever possible.”
‘Bioplastics is a business’
While the market is small, it is growing. Benvic brand’s current share of the market varies from application to application. “In the film packaging we are not a leader; in the coffee capsule materials we will be one of the leading companies in Europe- but in the furniture area, we are a market leader: the volume is small, but it will become big in the future,” said Bortolon. What kind of companies become customers? Are they simply idealistic enthusiasts? “The enthusiasts among our customers are the one who have a clear idea that they can gain something from using these materials,” said Bortolon. “Although there are companies that are so conscious about the environment and willing to spend two or three times the cost of conventional plastics just because they want to save the planet, I also think that these companies want to spend money on bioplastics - because they consider that there is value to be gained from doing it,” he concluded.