Unlocking the Promise of Bio-Based Plastics

Unlocking the Promise of Bio-Based Plastics

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Simon Herriott is Global Business Director for Biomaterials at DuPont.

Monday, February 22, 2016 - 10:15am


By Simon Herriott

The growing global glut of crude and corresponding collapse in oil prices are reshaping short-term market dynamics.  In this environment, it is easy to forget that – long term – industries that have traditionally relied on petroleum-based feedstocks must still innovate to sustainably meet the needs of a rapidly expanding global population.  A global, connected middle class – expected to roughly double by 2030 – is rapidly changing the breadth and scale of consumer demand, as well as signaling the need to rethink how we meet it.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the plastics industry.   

According to a January 2016 report released by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF), and supported by McKinsey & Company, plastics production has increased 20 fold over the past 50 years from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes.  The focus of the report highlights how challenges such as this and others can be solved by shifting toward the “circular economy”, a systemic approach that emphasizes maximizing both the use of renewable feedstocks and the re-use of materials through recycling.

Such a system-wide model for the economy is also vital if society is to meet the gauntlet thrown down by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  These goals, ratified by all 193 members of the United Nations in 2015, present a common determination to take bold and transformative steps towards a better future for all.  One of the goals – Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns – recognizes that many of our past approaches have failed.  Despite near-universal efforts to promote recycling, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected today.  The results have had enormous environmental consequences.  An estimated 150 million tonnes of plastics are in our ocean today.  Under business as usual projections, this figure is expected to grow until it exceeds the aggregate weight of fish in the ocean by 2050.

In addition, plastics rely heavily on conventional fossil fuels both as direct material feedstock and as a process energy source, contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions.  Scientists believe that absent an “at scale” alternative to conventional fossils fuels, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are expected to rapidly increase, exceeding the 2°C brink that international scientists agree is the threshold to avoid the most challenging impacts of climate change.   

The question naturally emerges: How do we rethink and transform the future of plastics? 

One compelling route identified by the report is to “decouple plastics from fossil feedstocks” in part by creating renewably sourced materials.  At DuPont, we have long been committed to enabling a sustainable bioeconomy, but in a sharply competitive environment versus petro-based feedstocks, that commitment alone is not enough. We also need to develop products from renewable resources that are:

  1. Economically viable;
  2. Offer differentiated product performance; and
  3. Meet the needs of the emerging circular economy.

Breakthrough “Building Block” Unlocks Vast Landscape of Bio-Based Materials

In a seminal 2004 report, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) identified twelve “building block chemicals” that represented the most promising pathways to unlocking the value of bio-based materials, if the complexity and costliness of converting the sugar from natural resources into high-value bio-based chemicals could be overcome.

Recently, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) – two of the world’s corporate science leaders – announced a breakthrough that promises to answer all three of the challenges identified above.  The companies have developed a method for producing furan dicarboxylic methyl ester (FDME) from fructose.  FDME is a high-purity derivative of furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), one of the 12 building blocks identified by the DOE that can be converted into a number of high-value, bio-based chemicals or materials.  It has long been sought-after and researched, but has not yet been available at commercial scale and at reasonable cost.  The new FDME technology is a more efficient and simple process than traditional conversion approaches and results in higher yields, lower energy usage and lower costs.

FDME platform technology will have applications in packaging, textiles, engineering plastics and many other industries.  ADM and DuPont are taking the initial step in the process of bringing FDME to market by moving forward on the scale-up phase of the project. The two companies are planning to build an integrated 60 ton-per-year demonstration plant in Decatur, Ill., which will provide potential customers with sufficient product quantities for testing and research.

One of the first polymers slated for development leveraging the FDME breakthrough will be polytrimethylene furandicarboxylate (PTF), a novel polyester also made from DuPont’s proprietary Bio-PDO™ (1,3-propanediol) that has enormous potential in beverage, bottling, and packaging industries.  

Developing PTF through FDME achieves the three targets identified above by:

  1. Providing an economically viable alternative to conventional petroleum-based plastics.  PTF is not only expected to produce a lighter weight, more durable bottle but also deliver reductions for customers in the energy required for product transportation.
  2. Delivering a differentiated product performance versus current market offerings.  PTF is a 100-percent renewable and recyclable polymer that, when used to make bottles and other beverage packages, substantially improves gas-barrier properties compared to other polyesters.  This makes PTF a great choice for companies in the beverage packaging industry looking to improve the shelf life of their products.
  3. Enabling the circular economy by supporting both recyclability and the offset of conventional petroleum feedstocks.  At scale use, PTF can be recycled in regular PET recycling streams. 

DuPont is turning its world-leading biotechnology capability into bio-based industrial products that offer long-term growth and sustainable solutions for our planet.  To learn more, visit our website

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CATEGORY: Environment