In my last post, I discussed why it is important for bioplastics to penetrate the market of durable applications. I suggested that this was a new step for the industry and I’ve been politely corrected by Todd Rogers, Market Manager- Polyamides at Arkema Inc, who pointed out that Arkema has been commercialising durable bioplastics for nearly 50 years. To amend my mistake and provide me with more info, Mr Rogers and I spend some time discussing Arkema’s Renewable range, the recently created Bioplastics Council and some of the environmental challenges faced by the plastics industry.

Arkema Renewables

Arkema has been producing at commercial scale for more than 40 years a high performance polyamide, PA11, under the tradename of Rilsan®. The fact that Rilsan® is derived from castor oil, a renewable source, has not been a top marketing priority until recently —I don’t think the market place was requesting bioplastics until recently. Most of our customers were and still are concerned about performance first. If you consider automotive fuel lines, the highest concern is safety and performance. That goes first, then the biobased concerns are secondary— explained Mr Rogers. Arkema is a 6 billion euros chemical company and in the grand scheme of the world of plastics, PA11 production may seem small. But it is not a common polyamide, like PA6 or PA66 and hence production volumes are modest. However, Rilsan® is well placed amongst other bioplastics, as its production is in the many thousands of tonnes and its pricing is backed by its performance.

Rilsan® has another competitive advantage, apart from its performance: it is 100% biobased —There are other competitors, but none of their products has the biobased content we have in our Rilsan product. The only thing that keeps us from being 100% is the stabilisers and plasticisers that we add to the polymer—. Arkema manufactures two different products under the brand Rilsan®: one is the biobased PA11 and the other one is the petroleum based PA12. However, Mr Rogers was quick to point out that PA12 is a secondary business for Arkema — it is used when the performance requirements are not that high and the client needs a more cost effective proposition. The biobased PA11 has higher performance properties, which is very exciting for us. There is a small niche of properties that really require PA11. It has great chemical resistance, greater flexibility, higher temperature resistance—.

Arkema commercialises two other polymers with biobased content: Rilsan Clear® and Pebax Rnew®—The Rilsan Clear Rnew GE350® it’s 50% biobased, it’s totally transparent, very high performance. Rilsan® clear has great ductility, physical properties, strength, chemical resistance and of course higher tag price than other transparent polymers like PMMA or PC. It is used in eyewear, sport frames, etc. Pebax Rnew product line is a copolymer, which is partially PA11 and partially a soft segment coming from petroleum It is not the first time that Pebax Rnew® is mentioned in mundomaterial, for those of you that want to know more, please read my previous post in Renewable TPEs.

Arkema’s renewables have traditionally being used in very demanding applications, like automotive under the hood components, electronics and Oil. But I couldn’t help wondering if Arkema has noticed any growth in demand recentlyYes, definitely. Some of the most prominent examples are in the Sports market. For example, skyboots or running shoes based on Pebax Rnew®. Both of them previously used Pebax®, based in petroleum. ATOMIC, a world leader in developing and manufacturing ski and snowboard equipment, scooped the Eco Responsibility Award at ISPO, the world’s largest international ski exposition in Munich for their Atomic Renu model. There a few examples were we see people migrating towards the performance biobased products vs the petroleum based products.This confirms my idea that bioplastics tend to sell better in applications where consumers have a say, as biobased products like Pebax Rnew can become a decisive purchasing factor for customers and it is therefore easier to account for the higher tag price. Of course, the fact that Arkemas has placed its renewable materials in Michael Phelps goggles or Usain Bolt running shoes may also have something to do with its success in the sporting market.

Rilsan® and Pebax Rnew® are derived from castor oil, which does not compete with food resources, as it is grown in arid areas. Currently Arkema is not involved in the crop growth, although it was in the past. Today Arkema’s purchases castor oil in the open market. Most castor plants are grown in India, China and Brazil. To me, there is room for improvement here, as the castor oil is produced quite far from Marseille, France, where it is transformed into monomer—The polymer is produced in several locations globally: one in the US, one in France and one in China. By having several locations like that we can reduce CO and CO2 emissions produced during transportation, to serve our customer base locally. I think it would not be realistic to grow castor beans in Europe or the US, though—, explained Mr Rogers.

The overall corporation has the firm commitment to develop biobased products, not only bioplastics, but also biochemicals. Arkema is considering other renewable sources and its commitment towards renewable resources is summarised in this quote from T. Le Hénaff, Arkema CEO:

10% of Arkema turnover from Renewables Product in 2010

Bioplastics Council

The Society of the Plastics Industry, SPI, recently created the Bioplastics Council, with its founding members being all bioplastic producers, either those that are currently manufacturing or those that will soon be manufacturing. It includes Arkema, DuPont, Telles, BASF (Ecoflex), Cereplast and NatureWorks, of course. The 6 companies will come together under the umbrella of SPI. Basically is an special interest group focused on helping educate the public at any level of the value chain: consumers, processors, etc. Mr Rogers gave me details of some of the actions promoted by the Bioplastics Council:

The Bioplastics Council will be holding a section in the NPE in the US later this year. We will have a panel as well as a number of talks, with real members of the bioplastics industry encouraging people to get involved and educated. Also we will come out later this year with an industry guide that will help people understand who they should seek out for what type of products: if they want durable products they should come to Arkema, if they want packaging materials they can go to one of the other polymer manufacturers. This guide should help understand the size and scope of the market and the industry.

The council recently met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA, to discuss how we can partner with them and with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is responsible in the US to make sure that advertisement is truth. There are many people out there putting false information and false claims, to fight these we have to educate people on every step of the value chain on technical specifications and test requirements, to keep this industry clean and not polluted with lies.

I asked Mr Rogers about the Bioplastics Council position on establishing a minimum percentage of biobased content in order to call a polymer bioplastic, a hot topic in the industry I think in the end the understanding of the Council is that any small percentage of biobased content is a step in the right direction. That said, we have need to make sure that we are true and honest so they took a stand of encouraging people to go through the ASTM D6866 that measures the amount of organic content in a product, and then put that number in their product. If it is 5%, let the market dictate whether that percentage is enough. As long as that number is more than zero and it is fairly measured and provided to customers to decide, then it’s a fair approach— replied Mr Rogers.

After reading Arkema’s documents and talking with Mr Rogers, I’m quite convinced that bioplastics are ready to go durable, if customers want to. Arkema’s Rilsan® 11 is 100% biobased, but also has an excellent performance track. Arkema also has 2 other biobased polymers, aims to increase its turnover from Renewable products to 10% in 2010 and it is an active member of the Bioplastics Council. The growth potential is there to exploit, and one can only wonder where biopolymers will be in 10 years time.

Related Posts:

Renewable TPEs

Renewably Sourced Polymer in Automotive Part

How to make a bioplastic in your own kitchen

Bioplastics Vocabulary

Other sources:

Arkema 2007′s Annual and Sustainable Development Report: http://www.arkema.com/sites/group/en/corporate/annual_reports/interactive_version.page

Rilsan 11: http://www.arkema.com/sites/group/en/products/detailed_sheets/technical_polymers/rilsan_11/home.page

Pebax Rnew: http://www.pebax.com/sites/pebax/en/properties/pebax_rnew.page

Rilsan Clear: http://www.arkema.com/sites/group/en/products/detailed_sheets/technical_polymers/rilsan_clear/home.page

SPI Bioplastics Council: http://www.bioplasticscouncil.org/

SPI: http://www.plasticsindustry.org/

NPE2009, The International Plastics Showcase: http://www.npe.org/

SPI Bioplastics Council Meets with USDA and FTC: http://www.plasticsindustry.org/files/about/BPC/SPI%20Bioplastics%20Council%20Meets%20with%20USDA%20and%20FTC.pdf

ASTM D6866 - 08 Standard Test Methods for Determining the Biobased Content of Solid, Liquid, and Gaseous Samples Using Radiocarbon Analysis: http://www.astm.org/Standards/D6866.htm