Thailand – a regional bioplastic hub?


The global production of biopolymers is expected to grow dramatically by 136% from 725,000 t/a in 2010 to about 1,710,000t/a, with bio polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and new materials such as bio polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and bio polypropylene (PP), which are not yet commercialised, as the main drivers.

This forecast provided the highly favourable conditions for InnoBioplast 2013, Thailand’s 4th international conference and exhibition on bioplastics and bio-based materials, which was held on January 24-26, 2013 at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre in Bangkok. Organised by the National Innovation Agency (NIA), the conference showcased a series of presentations from more than 30 world-renowned speakers on topics ranging from raw materials availability, production technology, product development, certification, future trends and the progress of Thailand’s National Roadmap for the Development of the Bioplastics Industry. Participating companies included material suppliers such as NatureWorks, PTT Group, Novamont and Purac, machinery suppliers such as SulzerChemtech, Gala and Piovan, product manufacturers such as BioBag and Nanthawan, and of course, government agencies and related associations.

innoBioplast 2013: product highlights

The Thai government aims to become the regional bioplastic hub of Asia. In 2008 the “National Map for the Development of Bioplastic Industry” with a budget of US $60 million was approved, and further extended to the next stage (2010-2015). Activities and benefits include receiving tax privileges for investment and research, establishing bioplastic standards, and supporting model plants for the production of bioplastic resins using local agricultural raw materials such as sugarcane and cassava. The TBIA (Thai Bioplastics Industry Association), currently comprising  47 member companies, is further supporting the vision to become the bioplastic leader in the region. But does Thailand have what it takes to become the regional hub for bioplastics?

According to several speakers, the answer is yes. “Thailand has very good prerequisites to become the integrated base for the production of bioplastics.” All the speakers were essentially in agreement and gave as their reasons the following:

1) Agricultural Feedstock
Renewable feedstock is available, namely sugarcane and cassava. In fact, Thailand is the world’s fourth cassava and sugarcane producing country with about 30-35 million t/a cassava and 100 million t/a sugarcane. However, only about 2% of the cassava, for instance, is currently converted into ethanol.

2) Infrastructure
Thailand has already an existing converting industry, for instance, a well-developed petrochemical and plastic processing industry.

3) Location
Thailand is located at the centre of Asia, and close to important bioplastic markets such as China, Japan and Taiwan.

PTT Group and the popular Amazon Coffee chain introduced coffee cups made of PLA in 2012.

The Thai PTT Group is said to be the world’s largest producer of bioplastic.The group has a 50:50% joint venture with Cargill in NatureWorks, the world’s largest PLA manufacturer with around 84% market share and a joint venture with MCC (Mitsubishi Chemicals Corporation) in Thailand-based PTTMCC Bio Chem which will be producing the world’s first biobased polybutylene succinate (PBS) in 2015 with a capacity of 20,000t/a. The group also operates a green acrylonitrile-butadiene styrene (ABS) plant in Thailand.



The conference

 Dr Marc Verbruggen, President and CEO, NatureWorks holding the keynote speech

In his keynote speech Dr Marc Verbruggen, President and CEO of NatureWorks, emphasised the good prospects for Thailand to become a regional hub. NatureWorks is the largest PLA producer with its 150,000t plant in the US. A second plant is in planning. Location: Thailand.

Verbruggen provided an overview on the “State of the Biopolymers industry” and what has been already achieved. Coca Cola had biopacked five billion products by the end of 2011, Pepsico committed to converting its product to 100% biobased packaging and America’s favourite ketchup Heinz now comes in a bio bottle. But the most outstanding and anticipated application for PLA is considered to be the yogurt cup. Here, all the benefits and advantages of PLA come together. French  company Danone has completely replaced the previously used polystyrene (PS) in cups and packaging, enabling it to reduce  CO2 emissions by 75% (equivalent to 1,320t CO2/year savings), maintaining line speed, productivity and shelf life, and most importantly, without increasing  the retail price. Verbruggen also shattered common myths about bioplastics, for instance, that bioplastics are not recyclable (yes, they are) and that bioplastics are more expensive than regular plastics (no, they are not). In his own calculation he showed that, assuming a barrel of oil costs US $90 and a bushel of corn US $5, the bioplastic material Ingeo is 13% more expensive than PET but still about 18% cheaper than  general purpose polystyrene (GPPS).

Bio bottle of Pepsico

In his “Asian Bioplastic Resin Market” analysis Dr Wolfgang Baltus of NIA made clear that the PLA market needs competition as more than 85% of all PLA supplied comes from NatureWorks. He also predicted that durable bio-based resins like PET will shape the future bioplastic industries, and that resins, such as PLA and PBS (PBS mainly as an “Asian affair”), will continue to grow as well. The main market driver for bioplastics in developing Asian countries is still “compostability”, in spite of a frequent lack of infrastructure (facilities and regulations). While domestic markets are still weak, Baltus expects that Asia will further advance as an export hub for bioplastic resins. Innovation-driven Asian countries, (like Japan, Korea), are focusing on the biobased concept using production hubs in low cost and feedstock rich areas in Asia (SEA, China, India).

Urs Fankhauer, CEO, Sulzer Chemtech speaks about the trends and challenges of the technology suppliers.

From the machinery and hardware side, Baltus received support from Urs Fankhauer, CEO of Sulzer Chemtech who also mentioned that the small number of key players supplying the raw materials (lactic acid, lactides) is a current obstacle inhibiting growth. The limited sourcing options of new bio-based polymers discourage OEMs from switching. However, he also sees PLA as an attractive growth prospect for all players in the value chain and the company is committed to making the PLA market a success. In order to support PLA market development, the company has recently commissioned its own 1,000t/a PLA plant for the production of PLA samples and process verification to support customers with their market and product development.


In addition to attending the conference, we also spoke to a number of companies: we discussed the role of thistles in producing bioplastic feedstocks, the production of biobags, took a look at bio PET and its applications and, more generally, sought their views on the Thai market.



Bioplastic feedstocks from thistles

Alberto Castellanza, Sales Area Manager Asia/Pacific, Novamont

Novamont has its roots in the Montedison research centre of material science in Italy, which was created after the discovery of polypropylene (PP) by the Nobel prize-winner Giulio Natta. “Unlike most other bioplastic material producing companies, who were previously involved in petrochemical feedstock processing, Novamont was born into bioplastics,” explained Alberto Castellanza, Sales Area Manager Asia/Pacific. Today, the company employs 220 people and produces 20 different grades of bioplastic materials under the “Mater-Bi” brand. All grades are made from substances obtained from plants, with thistle one of the main feedstocks, and are biodegradable and compostable.

The factory in Terni, Italy has a capacity of 120,000t/a Mater-Bi material, and an additional 60,000t/a of polyester. The main focus is on films (films for waste bags, shopping bags, mulching films and packaging) and other consumables. The different material grades can be processed using common transformation techniques such as injection moulding, for instance, for cups, plates, cutlery; extrusion, thermoforming and blown-film, which is the most common process for this material. The produced film can be printed on using normal inks and printing techniques, without the need for additional Corona treatment. Although the main focus is on film and consumables, the company sees itself in a position to provide grades for special applications, for instance, a material grade that can replace expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam. Another grade is able to replace partly silica/carbon black in tyres, with the positive side-effect that the rolling resistance of the tyre is reduced. A large share of about 80% of the annual production goes to the European market, followed by North America, Asia and Australia. In Thailand and South-East Asia the company partners with Thai blown-film producer Thantawan Industry.

Novamont and Thai Thantawan have a joint booth.

Thantawan, formerly known as Blowtech (Thailand) was founded in 1973. Today, with a workforce of around 1,000 employees, the company converts 18,000t/a of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). The principal products are film and bags made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), zipper bags, high density polyethylene (HDPE) bags and drinking straws made from polypropylene (PP). Due to the high export rate of about 90%, the company was early faced with the requirements to make products from renewable resources, and started in 2005 to investigate producing T-shirt bags made from bioplastics.

“The domestic bioplastic market is still very weak and very price-sensitive. The role of the government will be crucial,” says Surasak Luangaramsri, General Manager of Thantawan.

Surasak Luangaramsri, General Manager, Thantawan Industry, at the booth next to exhibit of compostable waste bags



The bioplastic bag with 20 years of history

Peter Loefvenholm, Project Sales Manager – Industry/Agri, BioBag International showing the ventilated waste bin with the “breathable” film

BioBag International (formerly PolarGruppen) was established in 1959 to produce different kinds of PE films and bags as its main activity. In 1993, the company introduced BioBag, a product line primarily made from renewable raw material. Consequently, the PE production was completely phased out during 2003, and the company has since then been totally focused on biodegradable products. Today, the production facility in Norway has its focus on flexible industrial film, using MaterBi raw material from Novamont which is derived from renewable resources, and completely compostable and biodegradable. Overall, products from more than 15 different material grades are available for various applications containing starch, biodegradable polyester and other natural plasticisers. Films can be produced in a thickness range from 10 to 180µm. BioBags are certified according to the European Standard EN13432, AS4736 for Australia and according to ASTM D6400 for North America.

A major application is mulch film in agriculture. The film displays  basically the same behaviour as conventional PE mulch film with the distinctive advantage that there is no need to remove the film later, the film can simply be left in the field as it is biodegradable in the soil. “This saves labour and disposal costs, and reduces the pollution caused by PE plastic in the environment. Even the lifespan of the film can be tailored in a range between one to eighteen months,” claims Loefvenholm.

A special feature is that the BioBag film is highly “breathable”. In combination with the “Max Air Bucket”, a kind of ventilated waste bin, it is possible to keep organics mould free and maintain them in an aerobic state, reducing nasty odours. This has proved popular with households when councils introduce collection of food waste. The MaxAir is currently being used in approx. 2.5 to 3 million households. The breathability is also an important feature when the BioBag is used in hygienic applications. Skin irritations are said to be less frequent and less severe.

Inhouse-manufacturing of bioplastic film is only one side of the business for BioBag International. After 20 years in the market, the BioBag brand has established a good reputation which allows the company to partner with other producers and marketing companies worldwide, for instance in the USA, UK, Portugal and Thailand-based Thantawan. In line with other bioplastic professionals, Peter Loefvenholm, Project Sales Manager, states that the South-East Asian market has a big potential but domestic markets have only started to look into bioplastics.



Bio PET: from stretch-blow moulded bottles to extruded cable covers

Toyota Tsusho partnered with Braskem at the Bioplast.

Since September 2010 the chemical giant Braskem has been operating a 200,000t/a production facility for biopolythylene (bio HDPE and bio LLDPE) in Triunfo, Brazil, a world-first of its kind. The feedstock comes from bioethanol derived from sugar cane.

In this context “bio” means that fossil-based ingredients are replaced by renewable ingredients, for instance, the company’s bio HDPE typically contains between 94.5 – 96% biobased content (up to 100% possible), bio LLDPE typically contains between 84-87% while the ethylene can be fully rplaced, the co-monomers in LLDPE cannot. “It is also planned to produce LDPE and PP in the near future. The material is distributed in Asia by Toyota Tsusho Corporation, a subsidiary of Toyota motors,” says Higuchi.

Claudia M. Cappra of Braskem and Masanori Higuchi of Toyota Tsusho Corporation

A widely predicted field of application is blow-moulded bottles which can be produced with the same equipment and basically with the same productivity as its petrol-based counterparts. Film packaging is another major market where Bio-LLDPE can replace LLDPE in most applications. In general, such “bio” based materials dominate the part of the market where PLA is either not competitive in terms of productivity (for example stretch-blow moulding) or where high transparency or longer shelf life is required. Toyota Tsusho has succeeded in supplying its Bio-PE to many well-known companies in Japan and Asia, including Shiseido, Kao, Aeon, Calpis, Ajinomoto and Kimberly-Clark. But there is more than merely packaging: special applications include, for instance, an Afumex cable of company Prysmian which features a cover made of Bio-PE.

Bio PE samples of company Toyota Tsusho

In another development, Toyota Tsusho Corporation imports bio ethanol from Petrobras into Taiwan where the company has started to produce bio PET with 30% renewable content in a 200,000t/a production facility. “The aim is to further increase the renewable content to up to 100% by using biobased materials for one of the main ingredients, purified terephthalic acid (PTA),” explains Kazuhiro Kanda, Assistant Manager Basic Chemical, who is responsible for  the company’s bio PET activities. Despite the fact that bio PET is currently about 20% higher in price, many multinational companies in Japan and Korea have begun to use the bio material in order to boost their green image.

Kazuhiro Kanda, Toyota Tsusho Corporation shows where he sees the future: bio PET.



From the machinery point of view

Incorporated in 1959, Gala Industries is a manufacturer of centrifugal dryers and underwater pelletising systems with production facilities in the USA and Germany. In 2008 Gala Asia opened its office in Thailand to provide sales, technical service, and spare parts to its customers throughout Asia.

“The good thing is that our standard machines work very well with PLA and bioplastics too”, explains Robert Mann, Market Manager of Gala Industries, pointing to its range of underwater pelletisers and centrifugal dryers. Main customers in the bioplastic field are the producers of virgin material and compounders.

Robert Mann (left), Engineering Resins Market Manager, Gala Industries, and his team

Some machines are particularly suitable for processing PLA and other polymers needing to be crystallised. For instance, the company’s crystalline pellet technology (CPT) is a special kind of direct crystallisation process, which is designed to avoid expensive precrystallisers and crystallisers. The direct crystallisation process itself offers two energy reduction elements. It retains sufficient heat in the pellets to cause the polymer to crystallise without any additional external heat required. It also allows the free flowing pellets to go directly into either packaging or further downstream processes. The company’s CPT process complements this direct crystallisation: the technology uses high velocity gas injection to increase the velocity of the water and pellet slurry and to create a water vapour mist that separates the pellets from the water. The vapour mist insulates the pellets from the cooling effect of the water and further enhances the internal heat to crystallise the pellets. Gas injection produces significantly lower water temperature and flow rate, typically not above 70°C.

 “Bioplastics” can be divided into three main categories:
1) materials that are based on “renewable resources” and are “biodegradable” (e.g. PLA or PBS)
2) materials that are based on “renewable resources” and that replace (usually only partly) petro-based commodity plastics (e.g. PE, PET, PP) or engineering plastics (e.g. PA, PC), but are “not biodegradable”. They are often also called “bio”, for instance, bio polyethylene
3) petro-based materials that are “biodegradable”

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