Biodegradable

THE INDUSTRY GIVES ITS FIRST STEPS

Industry movement justifies positive prognostics to advance the concept in the country

Renata Pachione

Polymers which have degradation properties have left the academic scope. Domestic production is still at an early stage, below 1 percent in the Brazilian market of thermoplastic resins. However, research has started to go past the benches to reach the floors of the factories. There is great movement in the sector to the point of justifying positive projections. According to estimates from the São Paulo State Technological Research Institute (local-acronym – IPT), the annual demand for biodegradable plastics could reach the figure of 20,000 tons in the next five years.

An estimate made by RES Brasil, a company based in Valinhos – São Paulo state, which is responsible for the import and the licensing of raw material to manufacture biodegradable plastic, accounts for the domestic production of 155 tons of packaging made with its products in 2003. However, the figure reflects only three months of effective input sales, in the assessment of Eduardo Van Roost, managing director. The prognostics are so positive to the point of encouraging RES SA, from Luxemburg, to build a plant in Brazil. If the expectations of the company are confirmed, in a short time, the production of basic inputs will be local, thus, leveraging the consolidation of the concept in the country.

Polyhydroxybutyrate Biopolymer ( PHB ), developed by the IPT in the 1990's, until recently was only an academic promise. But today, manufactured at Usina da Pedra, from the Irmãos Biagi group, in Serrana, São Paulo state, the resin is about to become a business venture. The success of the development served as a support to the creation of the company, PHB Industrial in 2000, the holder of the Biocycle brand, the commercial name of the polymer. The business venture has grown and prompts encouraging perspectives. PHB Industrial intends to produce at a commercial scale, in two years at the latest. The new unit which is supposed to open in 2006 should generate 4,000 tons of Biocycle already in its first year of activities. The plan is to operate with a productive capacity of 15,000 tons in two years.

BAG DEGRADATION

 
Initial stage   After 32 days


 
After 45 days   With 52 days in the soil

 

Commercial scale – The marketing appeal and the ecological fad also influence the development of this market, but the main responsible factors for it are the competitive price and the quality of the raw material offered to the transformer. If one day biodegradable plastic directed the industrialist toward a futuristic vision or to the environmentalist ideal, today, it is part of the strategic planning of major packaging manufacturers. Attentive to international trends, Nobelplast, from São Paulo – São Paulo state, an active company in the market of flexible packaging for over 40 years, has been interested in manufacturing biodegradable products since 2001.

However, it was only last year that the Project left the paper, and the production which had been exclusive for samples destined for testing, became commercial. The results of the operation substantiate the perspectives of the executive director of Nobelplast, Beni Adler. According to him, in three years, 40% of the earnings of the company should be generated by the packaging line with biodegradable properties. This pledge reflects the success of the actions performed last year. As of a request from Natura cosmetics network, the company manufactured packaging to send invoices destined to 335,000 consultants of the company. “This was only the beginning of a continuous project,” evaluates Adler. Also in 2003, Nobelplast produced approximately 20,000 envelopes of a mailing list, to send the regulations of the Grand Journalism Award of the Ayrton Senna Institute. The two products were manufactured with the EMC degrading additive from the English company called Symphony and represented in the country by RES Brasil.
61 days in the soil

Even though it is in its early stages, Nobelplast's degradable line, called Bioplast, has growth potential. On the verge of new contracts, Adler predicts the closing of the year with the product answering for 10% of the production.


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Petrobrás is among the probable partners of the company. The company should aggregate degradable material in its campaign “De Olho no Ambiente” (Taking care of the environment). The action will take place on the Brazilian beaches, with the distribution of plastic bags manufactured with the EMC additive. According to Adler's evaluation, there is a natural trend of companies committed to the environment to migrate to packaging with degradation properties. In his opinion, with time, the consumer will demand a social posture from the manufacturer, boosting the development of the market. According to information from the IPT, studies point to the replacement from 5% to 10% of the total volume of conventional plastic manufactured in the world until the middle of the century.

Nobelplast's first incursion in this market happened with the utilization of the Mater-Bi polymer also represented by RES Brasil. With biodegradability and composting characteristics, the organic material manufactured by the Italian company Nova-mom was destined to the creation of experimental packaging. Two years after this development, Nobelplast adopted the EMC accelerator agent of degradation in its production which resulted in the commercial actions held last year.
Van Roost: biodegradable
plastic meets rapid disposable packaging niche.


The company offers the degradable version for all the lines of the brand, even though it is aware of the limitations of this kind of packaging for some market niches, such as cosmetics. “We can manufacture any of our products with the additive,” explains Adler.

Besides translating a market trend, in the industrialist's opinion, this offer is related to input viability. “The product is 97% national, which decreases the final packaging price,” he comments. The packaging requires only 3% of the additive to degrade. In addition, EMC keeps the properties of the resin intact.


Promotion
Boticário bets on degradability

An original action – For the first time in Brazil, the degradable plastic packaging has reached industrial scale. At the end of last year, Antilhas Soluções Integradas para Embalagens, integrated solutions for packaging, manufactured five million degradable bags of Polyethylene low density – PEBD, using EMC additive. The production was for O Boticário , a cosmetics and toiletries network. It was a punctual Christmas action, but the launching was expressive and signaled a new phase for the plastic industry, in the opinion of Antilhas technical analyst Carlos Hugo Oliveira. He acknowledges the subsidy offered by a strong brand, such as O Boticário , however he believes in the rapid consolidation of the concept, especially in specific operations. “It's going to take some time before degradable plastic reaches the packaging of lines which involve great volume, but with every new action, more business will be done,” he says. Before the plastic bags sales, Antilhas did not receive inquiries regarding this type of packaging. In January alone, the company registered an average of 15 new contacts.

The launching consumed approximately one hundred tons of resin, absorbed in the production of five million plastic bags. If compared to the total production of the company, the volume was expressive, admits Oliveira. After all, in periods of peak, up to nine million bags a month are manufactured. However, the promotion of the concept is more important. The product is at the beginning of its development and requires time to become consolidated in the domestic packaging market.

On the lookout for the disposable – Far from being a threat to conventional polyolephine, biodegradable plastic is focused on specific applications, in general, quickly disposable products. The practicality offered by plastic packaging and the urgency of modern life are an invitation to the aggravation of the environmental issue. The useful life of a supermarket bag, many times, is of a few seconds, because besides being used as a bag for the consumer's purchases, it aggregates the function of packaging domestic garbage. The disposal is almost immediate to its acquisition, while natural degradation can take up to one hundred years. According to a survey by RES Brasil, the supermarket networks consume approximately 700 million bags per month in the country.

Due to the great volume, Van Roost bets on this niche as the effective entrance door of degradable plastic in the market of plastic packaging. “At first, I believe the material will be incorporated to segments of artifacts of short life cycle,” he states. The experience in England makes Van Roost believe in the potential of the sector. According to the executive, some English wholesalers adopted the biodegradable bags. As a result, they registered a boost in their image, as a company committed to the environment, and also a financial profit. In face of the possibility of contributing to environmental preservation, the consumer reduced by 25% the use of plastic bags. However, since the price of the degradable material is higher than conventional plastic, even with a drop in the consumption of bags, there was a credit balance

According to José Geraldo da Cruz Pradella, from the Agrupamento de Biotecnologia – IPT's Chemical Division and responsible for the biopolymer PHB development group, the English model could be followed in the country, above all because Brazilians have the profile of people who would pay more for packaging, if the objective were environmental preservation. According to the expectations of RES Brasil, until the end of 2004, the domestic production of degradable plastic bags will be of approximately 150 million a month. According to the company's projection, the increase in product sales will be of 100% a year.

The national transformers support the perspective. Sol Embalagens, a packaging company which supplies plastic bags to Pão de Açúcar, Carrefour and Wal-Mart, among other wholesalers, is negotiating with a major national supermarket network, still in secret, to sell degradable bags in this semester.


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Adler believes in the increase
of degradable consumption

 

The samples of the manufactured product with EMC additive were approved by European agencies and are waiting for the accreditation of the degradation properties, of a national institute. According to the predictions of Rogério Mani, the commercial director of Sol Embalagens, if the deal is really closed, the bags will already be available to the consumers this year, in April.

The company has been studying the application of biodegradable materials in its line of products for three years. However, in Mani's opinion, with the additive alone it has obtained competitive prices for the packaging. “The expectations in relation to the production of degradable bags are very positive and promising,” he comments. At the beginning of last year, Sol had a very successful experience with the use of Mater-Bi biopolymer. The company offered packages made with the input for the 41 st . Grape Festival, held by the local administration of the city of Vinhedo – São Paulo state. The event stood out because it avoided the deposit of plastic residues in landfills or garbage dumps, due to the use of biodegradabale and compostable plastic garbage bags. There were two kinds of garbage cans: one for solid and another for organic garbage. After the collection, the dry residues were sent to recycling cooperatives and the wet residues were deposited for composting at the party itself. After 50 days, all the wet garbage was transformed into composting and began to be used as fertilizer.

Other experiences, even abroad, show the progress of the concept. The Hospital of the University of Harvard and the University of Massachussetts, both in the US, use compostable and biodegradable products manufactured with Mater-Bi in their kitchens. There are more examples outside the academic world. According to information from RES Brasil, the McDonalds networks of Sweden and Austria have adopted a biodegradable packaging line. In the Olympic Games of Sydney, held in Australia in 2000, the cutlery, glasses, plates, straws, lids for glasses and garbage bags followed the concept of Mater-Bi biodegradability.

The beginning of the way – In the opinion of representatives of the sector, the domestic industry is at an inferior position, when the issue at hand is the commitment to preserve the environment, above all due to lack of legislation. According to Adler, one of the obstacles to consolidate the concept is the lack of norms, because without parameters, the process to insert biodegradable material in the plastic packaging sector becomes slow and expensive. “In other countries there are laws which justify the investments of industrialists in biodegradable plastic,” he says. Sylvio Ortega Filho, responsible for the production of Biocycle at PHB Industrial, believes that the implementation of norms will be a consequence of the increase in the demand of the product.

Even though RES Brasil agrees with the fact that there is a lack of laws in the country, it got together with its main clients and went to the Ministry of the Environment to present samples of degradable and biodegradable products, but did not present any request. According to Van Roost, the idea was to communicate to the government the potential of the market in the country. “Nobody knows a lot about the issue, not even the Ministry,” he said. In his opinion, the contact was valid because the government was receptive and showed it was willing to get to know the market. “We are only at the beginning of a long road,” states Van Roost. A survey conducted by RES Brasil showed that in the landfills of developed and developing countries, plastic materials represent 60% of the volume. The company predicts the gradual diffusion of the concept without claiming to take care of this whole volume. “The industry is giving its first steps. There are many people testing the product,” assured Van Roost. RES Brasil is negotiating with twenty companies.

Installed in the country since 1997, RES Brasil has invested 200,000 Euros in research and promotion of the concept. However, it was only last September that it started the effective sale of biodegradable plastic. The access route to the transformer has a name: EMC. “We have invested everything in the additive, because it will revolutionize the market,” states Van Roost.

The EMC agent allows the production of pieces with an accelerated process of degradation and biodegradation, without compromising the properties of the resin, when incorporated to the conventional processes of transformation of thermoplastic resins at a proportion of, in average, 3% of raw material. The additive weakens the links among the carbon molecules of the polymer, so as to allow the degradation of the material, under normal conditions to the environment, when discarded in the garbage.

After the degradation, the small resulting fragments are digested faster by the bacteria and fungi existing in nature. “Once the carbon and hydrogen chains of common plastic have been broken, the atoms of free carbon are linked to the oxygen in the atmosphere forming carbon dioxide. The free hydrogen atoms are also linked to oxygen, forming water. These are the same substances that the living organisms exhale in breathing,” explains Van Roost.


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The technology in question was developed by the English company, Symphony, and is called D2W. By using it, a plastic bag takes, on average, 18 months to degrade. One advantage of this development is the fact that the plastic doesn't need a specific environment to decompose. Decomposition happens by means of the ultraviolet rays, thermal conditions, water, or even stress of the material through handling. One variable is independent of another for degradation to occur.

The efficiency of the degrading additive is shown more clearly in flexible packaging. However, the material has conquered other segments. Last month PET packaging manufactured with EMC by AB Plast, from Joinville in the state of Santa Catarina, received the approval of international agencies, certifying its degradation property. However, according to Van Roost's evaluation, the soft drink market might not endure the increase of the final price of the degradable packaging, even though the progress adds value to the plastic market. “In partnership with recycling, it is a solution for the pollution caused by the material,” Van Roost stated. The additive can be applied to all types of thermoplastic resin, with the exception of PVC.

Oliveira: specific operations support increases

 

Prices can go down – The prognostics for the progress of the degradation concept in the national scope are positive because the prices will tend to recede progressively. RES Brasil suggests the possibility of producing in the country, if it manages to sell 800 tons/month of raw material. According to Van Roost, from September to November last year, 155 tons of the finished product were sold. If business follows the trail of 2003, soon, RES Brasil's production of raw material will be local. If the plans are rendered concrete, the packaging with additives may be sold for a price 10% above that of conventional plastic. RES Brasil tries to circumvent the price issue with the popularization of the additive. Today, the price of packaging made with EMC can be 40% more expensive, in relation to a traditional piece. Van Roost says the company is making an effort to enable future deals to have, at the most, 15% increase in the final product. “We will take into consideration some factors, such as scale, but in 2004 I will work with this figure,” he states.

The company also brought to the domestic packaging industry the Mater-Bio compostable and biodegradable thermoplastic resin. As a banner product in the category of products with immediate biodegradability, the raw material represented the first incursion of the concept in domestic territory via RES Brasil. Developed by the Italian company, Novamont, Mater-Bi follows the same principles of decomposition by natural biological processes, that is, when in contact with organic compounds, the plastic decomposes through the action of living organisms. These attack the starch or other polysaccharides added to the polymer to obtain the final product. However, the opinion of Van Roost is that the high price of Master-Bi restricts its use. Master-Bi, which is three times more expensive than conventional resins, is still directed toward specific segments of the market. “It takes time to transform lab results in industrial scale,” he stated. He predicts that the beginning of commercial scale production of the biopolymer will take at least four years.

Another raw material represented by the company is destined toward the manufacturing of hydrosoluble plastic, with a polyvinylic alcohol base. The resin dissolves in contact with water without leaving behind toxic or harmful residues. The main application of the product is to bottle detergents, disinfectants and powder saponaceous, that is, products which are put in washing machines, dishwashers and toilets. Van Roost pointed out that resins, raw material, and imported additives represented by RES Brasil are certified by European and American agencies for contact with food, degradability and biodegradability, compostability and hydrosolubility.


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Ortega predicts the increase
in the demand of Biocycle

Biotechnology – the IPT, a reference institute for national biotechnology has carried out studies to assuage the environmental aggression caused by plastic material for a long time. Researchers have studied since 1991, the production of PHB, a biodegradable polymer derived from saccharose. After 13 years of development, there is a prediction of the effective manufacturing of the product in commercial scale. Today, what is real is the pilot plant in Usina da Pedra created by PHB Industrial, the company which owns the Biocycle brand, the commercial name of the polymer. The idea is to substitute it in 2006 for an industrial unit. “It will be a plant to sell blended and composted products. This is an evolution for the plastic sector,” comments Sylvio Ortega Filho, responsible for Biocycle production, at PHB Industrial. The initial production will be of 4,000 tons of Biocycle, with the perspective of increasing the volume in two years. According to PHB Industrial forecast, the unit will be operating 15,000 tons of the product in 2008.

Until 2000, the production of PHB was restricted to bench scale. According to Ortega, the period was necessary to adjust the technology and to corroborate the viability of the product. “The process involves two parts, extraction and fermentation. Today, the technology has been mastered,” he states. From then on, it was possible to think of PHB as business. In 2000, with the creation of PHB Industrial, in the Usina da Pedra, the pilot plant started to operate, with the productive capacity of 50 tons/year. According to Ortega, the volume produced was never the company's focus. The main objective was always to define the production route of Biocycle. That is, to improve the processability of the resin increasing the possibilities of the application of the material for the transformer.

The biopolymer shows good performance for the injection processes, and resins are being developed for injection-blow and extrusion. According to IPT information, PHB is used to produce containers for agricultural defensive products, containers and films for food, injected products (toys, school material) disposables, besides pieces which cover or encapsulate products for agricultural use. Biocycle is recommended in the manufacturing of small pieces and has to face the challenge of entering the flexible packaging market.

A long time ago – The idea of developing a thermoplastic resin derived from bacterial culture fed with saccharose is not new. The formation of plastic in granules formed in the interior of specific lineages of bacterial cells was observed by Maurice Lemoigne, a French scientist, from the Pasteur Institute of Paris, in 1926.

Since then, the class of polymers of bacterial origin, generically called polyhydroxyalkanoates – PHAs stood out among the suggested alternatives for the production of biodegradable plastic. However, the material only became established as of the pioneer action of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), of launching in the world market, in 1983, a copolymer based on polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), under the commercial name of Biopol.


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PHB Industrial Unit will produce 15,000 tons/year


However, the price of raw material made the biodegradable plastic unviable at the time. In the 1980's the cost was of 15 dollars per kilogram. Today the kilogram of the new resin developed by the IPT can cost three times more in relation to plastic of petrochemical origin. Even though it is more accessible, PHB is still not used in commercial applications. However, the road is open. According to Ortega, with the operation at commercial scale, the effective consolidation of the concept nationwide will come about.

One of the advantages of the polymer is the cost of the raw material. Sugarcane, which is abundant in the country, makes the product competitive, above all in the international market, according to José Geraldo da Cruz Pradella, from Agrupamento de Biotecnologia –IPT Chemical Division and responsible for the PHB developing group. The input corresponds to approximately 50% of the total cost of Biocycle. According to Ortega'a evaluation, the foreign market is, at the moment, the main consumer of the product. PHB Industrial sells Biocycle to Europe, Japan, the United States, Venezuela and Chile, among others.

“All the other carbon sources are less competitive than sugarcane,” explains Ortega. According to his calculations, in the United States, for example, biodegradable plastic derived from corn costs approximately 40% more when compared to Biocycle.

Renewable source – The name Biocycle (cycle of life) alludes to the biodegradation process itself. The raw material appears from the photosynthesis of sugarcane, synthesized as of the transformation of carbon dioxide, present in the atmosphere, water, soil, solar energy and agricultural input. Saccharose from the industrialization of sugarcane is transformed into a biopolymer, polyhydroxybutyrate PHB, by means of fermentation. When in contact with a biologically active environment, that is, with bacteria and fungi, associated with temperature and humidity, the material goes back to the stage of carbon dioxide and water, thus, closing the cycle. “The product is stable in the absence of the adequate conditions for biodegradation to take place,” explains Ortega. In an active environment, the packaging disappears in a period from six months to one year and a half.

The IPT researchers don't consider biodegradable plastic as a direct competition to the commodities, but the holders of a specific market. PHB, in particular, aims at meeting the applications in which the characteristics of total biodegradability and chemical resistance are required. It has come a long way before having reached this status . The interest in developing a biopolymer from sugarcane arose at the beginning of the 1990's. The technology counted on the participation of the IPT and the University of São Paulo and with the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology (PADCT and FINEP - Program for the Development of Science and Technology). In December 1995, Copersucar and the IPT signed the first addendum of the protocol of technical cooperation, giving details of the rights and the obligations of both parties, and also aspects of property and exploration of results. The agreement was signed in 1998. The project, which was estimated at 9 million dollars, established the biosynthesis of the Polyhydroxybutyrate Biopolymer PHB and of the copolymer poly([R]-3-hydroxybutyrate-co-3-hydroxyvalerate) ( PHB / HV ) by aerobic fermentation and by the extraction and purification of the polymer by a solvent. The IPT works with three types of bacterial lineages. The micro-organisms in question are Ralstonia eutropha , and Alcaligenes eutrophus and Burkholderia sacchari .

Sources of Carbon – Today, the Institute is turned to the production of new sources of carbon for biodegradable plastic, besides saccharose. It conducts research on the material from hydrolized sugarcane bagasse (xylose and glucose), from vegetal oil and milk serum. “We are at the very beginning of the study, but in very little time we will make progress,” comments Pradella. Still inside the IPT campus, the production of medication from biodegradable plastic, with controlled release, is being studied. The degradation of the material will allow the organism to be nourished by the active principle of the medication, according to the recommended dosage.

This application for biodegradable plastic announces a new scenario for the spreading of the concept. The development, as Pradella explained, has no limiting factor, such as prices, and there are even laboratories interested in the patent. He concludes by saying: “There is a lot of space for biodegradable plastic to develop.”