Packaging is a key market for the company’s R&D efforts in bioplastics using PLA and, especially, its PHA polymers for use in existing products and to create entirely new products with enhanced functionality and features.
Lynne Brum, vp, marketing and corporate communications at Metabolix, provides an update on the company’s efforts to bring better “green” into packaging using market-focused bioplastics.
To catch us up on the business side: What are the main changes since the alliance with ADM was ended in early 2012?
Brum: Since early 2014, Metabolix has been working to reshape the company, secure financing, focus on commercial development and biopolymer production while maintaining its world-class research and development program for polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) technology. The company has a solid portfolio of customer projects advancing across target applications.
In addition, earlier in 2015, Metabolix signed a technology and commercial alliance with Honeywell for the use of PHA biopolymers for cosmetic and personal care applications. The company has nearly completed expansion of a pilot recovery facility which, when completed, will accelerate access to amorphous-PHA for customer trials and applications. Joseph Shaulson has served as president/CEO since January 2014.
How would you characterize the business climate for bioplastics?
Brum: It’s clear that innovators in the industry are looking closely at how new materials—including biobased ones like PHA—can be incorporated into existing products or can be used to create entirely new products with new functionality and features. And judging by our experiences at this year’s National Plastics Exposition (NPE2015 was held March 23-27 in Orlando), the business climate is excellent for bioplastics that can deliver performance advantages.
How do packaging applications fit into your overall business plans?
Brum: Packaging applications are a major area of interest for Metabolix. Barrier coatings for paper, product packaging film as well as injection molded articles for packaging are all target markets for Metabolix. PHA biopolymers alone, PHA as a modifier for polylactic acid (PLA), and PHA-based barrier coatings for paper offer many versatile options for packaging applications.
What about the recent development in an aqueous PHA coating for paper and corrugated?
Brum: At PaperCon 2015 in April, Metabolix presented research results on an innovative PHA technology that can be applied as a very thin, moisture-resistant and biodegradable barrier coating on paper. A joint effort with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, the paper focused on the use of Metabolix’s bio-based, Mirel-brand PHA-based latex coating to improve the moisture resistance of paper articles used in the production of water resistant shipping containers and waste bags for naval vessels. The technology has numerous other possible packaging applications as well because it can serve as a substitute for wax or polyethylene or one of several polymeric binder formulations which often limit or prevent recycling options. The Mirel PHA polymer has been shown to be compostable, biodegradable and marine degradable and papers coated with the PHA latex have been found to be repulpable–thereby preventing large quantities of paper products from ending up in landfills or being incinerated. The development for this application is still at a relatively early stage, but we believe it holds significant potential as a new technology for barrier coatings.
I see that the company presented a transparent “a-PHA modified PLA film” at NPE—can you comment on that?
Brum: At NPE 2015, our biopolymers team packaged notepads in transparent a-PHA modified PLA film as a product sample (shown below). Our a-PHA modified PLA packaging film closely resembles the film wrap in wide use for packaged goods, but it offers bio-based and compostable features. The notepad film catalyzed numerous conversations about the use of our PHA biopolymers to modify PLA in film and other applications because of its transparency and pliability.
What other of your products center on packaging?
Brum: At an upcoming cosmetics conference, we plan to highlight the use of PHA-modified PLA to make biobased containers for cosmetics. The injection-molded jars that we plan to feature offer brand owners the benefits of increased biocontent and where desired, compostability.
What can you say about the commercial use of your biomaterials in packaging?
Brum: We do have customers using our biomaterials today, with some of the newer products using PHA as a modifier of PLA because it improves performance and increases bio-content. In the example of the transparent film mentioned above, PLA by itself is too brittle, crinkles too easily, and is too noisy to make a really good film, but with some PHA added a more ductile and tough film results—one with good performance characteristics but without the noise.
As a performance additive, PHA biopolymers offer biobased content and improvements to product performance. We think the acceptance and demand for bioplastics is growing as brand owners continue to seek out sustainable alternatives for packaging.
See these articles for more on Metabolix and packaging.
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