- Published on Wednesday, 24 October 2012 08:30
- Written by Des King
JAPAN – Already one of Japan’s leading suppliers of wood cellulose bio-based film to the domestic converting sector, Futamura Chemical Co Ltd is hoping to extend its sustainable packaging offer further by offering sugar-based PLA grades in the near future.
According to managing director Tetsuya Takahashi, if early trials prove to be successful then Futamura could be supplying the NatureWorks ‘Ingeo’ material within the next 18 months: "We’re currently sourcing sample batches from the NatureWorks production facility in the US, but should be able to go ahead in the longer term and start to produce PLA film in volume.
“We could then well become one of the first customers for the new NatureWorks facility planned to come on stream in Thailand in 2015.”
NatureWorks LLC is the world’s leader producer of PLA and recently became 50% owned by the Thailand-based petro-chemicals giant PTT Industries. The projected 140,000 tonnes Thai site will double current capacity, says NatureWorks’ marketing director Steve Davies: “Feedstock for the Thai facility will not be dextrose from corn; instead we plan to source sugars from plants native to that region, with the option of sourcing sugars from both locally-grown cassava and sugar cane.”
Although it has yet to make a significant impression on the Japanese market, the country was one of the first to express an interest in biopolymer substitution of oil-based plastic film. Amongst a handful of applications on the market are Nisshan Oillio’s Eco-30 range of edible oils – for which the entire package including the thermo-formed bottle, label and closure, is produced out of PLA – and Shiseido’s ‘Urara’ cosmetics range sold within China.
Futamura currently accounts for the 80% majority share of the cellulose film market in Japan; its nearest competitors being Rengo, and of course the global wood-pulp based plastics film producer Innovia, who is currently disadvantaged by the US Dollar / Yen exchange rate.
Despite the apparent interest amongst local brands to visibly promote their green credentials, adoption of biopolymers is something of an uphill struggle, observes Mr Takahashi. “Bio-plastic film probably only represents 3% of the total flexible packaging market at the most. Growth is very slow, and is only likely to reach 5% by 2016
“Part of the difficulty is that a biopolymer alternative can cost anything up to almost three times as much as a conventional film. One of the principal attractions of PLA, apart from its excellent performance properties in terms of barrier protection, strength and clarity etc, is that it’s less expensive than other bio-based materials.”
The price could be a decisive factor. Whilst the upper end bio-based film can cost up to ¥400/kg (compared to oil-based plastic grades at around ¥150/kg), PLA being shipped in from the US is closer to ¥200/kg; even in small volumes. Once the Thai production site is up and running, and subject to shipping volumes rising, the price could become very close to parity.