Yesterday’s promising ‘green’ materials: Where are they now?

By Chandler Slavin in Sustainable Packaging on September 03, 2015

A “Then & Now” comparison of sustainable packaging materials for thermoforming applications demonstrates the shift from an interest in biodegradation to an emphasis on performance.

 

During the Wild Wild West of bioplastics—this was 2009, before the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revised the Green Guides on environmental marketing claims and before the cost of oil plummeted—everyone was looking for an alternative to non-renewable plastics; everyone seemed excited by the idea of biodegradability; and everyone had a magical material to sell.

To respond to this excitement, Dordan created its Bio Resin Show N Tell, which attempted to cut through the fluff by sampling and profiling the available biodegradable materials on environmental performance, technical properties and cost. What started with just a handful of compostable materials in 2010 grew to a collection of more than nine bio-based, biodegradable and otherwise green plastics by 2013.

But then nothing happened.

While we presented the Show N Tell annually at Pack Expo and in meetings with clients and prospects, we never produced any thermoformed packaging in any of these non-traditional resins. This was for a myriad of reasons but, in a nutshell, because most materials were not up to snuff from a performance or cost perspective. 

We retired our Show N Tell in 2014, as most clients indicated interest in recycled, as opposed to “biodegradable,” thermoformed packaging solutions.

And then I saw a presentation at SustPack15 in Orlando from Dr. Molly Morse, CEO and co-founder of methane-based PHA producer Mango Materials. She and her team of researchers from Stanford found a way to use methane, as oppose to sugar, as the feedstock for bioplastic PHA (polyhydroxy alkanoate).

PHA has been historically expensive and hard to find as it is made using ecoli and feeding the bacteria sugar. By feeding the bacteria methane instead of sugar, it was discovered that the cost of PHA production could be significantly reduced. PHA is unique in that it can biodegrade in any end-of-life disposal environment and withstand high temperatures, properties its sister bioplastic polylactic acid (PLA) does not share without the addition of modifiers.

I was inspired by Mango Materials’ innovation in bioplastic production; I wanted to learn more. What happened to all the materials profiled in Dordan’s Bio Resin Show N Tell? Is our experience with non-traditional resins for thermoforming representative of other’s in the industry? In short, what is the market today for “green” plastics in thermoforming?

What follows is a “Then & Now” comparison of the materials sampled in Dordan’s Bio Resin Show N Tell. While some suppliers declined interview, many had interesting stories to tell about their experiences in this ever-changing market. These narratives are intended to paint a portrait of the landscape of sustainable plastics for thermoforming, demonstrating the shift in rhetoric on bioplastics from biodegradation to an emphasis on performance.

 

Next: We start with foamed rPET

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