At this year's Interpack show in Dusseldorf, Germany, an entire temporary pavilion was devoted to bioplastics in packaging, and more than 10,000 show visitors took the time to scope out this exhibit. The large response at that international trade fair buoyed the hopes of the IBAW Association (International Biodegradable Polymers Assn. & Working Groups), an international industry platform for manufacturers, converters and users of bioplastics and biodegradable polymers. The pavilion included 23 exhibitors, including polymer producers such as NatureWorks, Novamont and Procter & Gamble; flexible film manufacturers such as Cedap, Innovia, Treofan and Wentus; and even producers of rigid packaging such as Autobar, Huhtamaki, Plantic and Sirap Gema. According to IBAW, most of the exhibitors were surprised at the outpouring of interest from show attendees, and the number of leads generated has far exceeded their expectations.
"We anticipate that compostable bioplastics packaging will soon reach supermarket shelves throughout Europe," says Harald Kaeb, chairman of the IBAW. "The interest was overwhelming, and for good reason." Packaging Digest was the first packaging publication to report on NatureWorks' first commercial food application of its polylactic acid (PLA) corn-based resin at Italian supermarket chain Iper (see PD, July 2002, p. 30). That first success story using PLA containers for fresh foods was followed by milk bottles at Naturally Iowa ("where we milk the cows and grow the bottles") and water bottles from BIOTA Brands.
IBAW believes the strong interest in bioplastics is directly attributable to the very high prices for crude oil and conventional plastics, coupled with the growing awareness that innovations such as bioplastics open up opportunities both for business and the environment.
Bioplastics are based primarily on renewable resources rather than crude oil. The technology has been in development for more than 15 years, and several real-life examples are now available, such as Iper's containers and similar packaging from Dutch supermarket chain, A. Heijn. Support for further development is critical, particularly during market introductions, according to Kaeb. "There's still a long way to go, and billions need to be invested if the technical potential is to be fully tapped," he asserts. Martina Wesselhoeft of Procter & Gamble agrees: "If we build a large-scale production plant, it costs hundreds of millions of euros." Procter & Gamble estmiates that approximately 10 percent of the application areas for plastics could be covered by current bioplastics, including totally new applications not yet researched or tested.