Biodegradable plastics are increasingly in demand but, for many years, this capability came at the expense of performance and reliability. Now, Perstorp has developed a toolbox for creating a range of high-quality biodegradable plastics, building upon its world-leading expertise in caprolactone technology. Packaging & Converting Intelligence hears from project manager for bioplastics Linda Zellner and global product manager Jesper Fahlén.
Plastics have been feeling the wrath of a bad reputation lately as the focus on sustainability has taken hold in a number of industries. When a million plastic bags are used globally every minute - many ending up in nature or the marine environment to highly detrimental effect - it's easy to see why the long-lasting material is such a target for criticism.
As the packaging industry would be the first to emphasise, however, plastics are also of enormous benefit to society, whether contributing their hygienic properties to food safety or their lightweight strength to the cheaper and more energy-efficient transportation of goods.
The challenge is in ensuring that all parties use, reuse and - crucially - dispose of plastics responsibly. It is this core message that Swedish speciality chemicals company Perstorp is emphasising with its new 'Time to act!' campaign.
First in the campaign is spreading information and awareness, according to project manager for bioplastics, Linda Zellner; whatever the application, the right material must be used with the right waste-management systems in place.
Perstorp may be many levels above the end consumer, but the company is keen to collaborate with manufacturers, retailers and policymakers to consider the entire life cycle of its products.
"When you develop something, you have to have the value-chain perspective," Zellner explains. "It's not just a case of creating a polymer and saying 'here you go'; you also have to consider where it will end up, the composition and behaviour of the material and how it can be dealt with."
As such, Perstorp has developed a new high-performance and fully biodegradable range known as Capa for bioplastics. The concept starts with the biodegradable caprolactone technology in which Perstorp is a world leader, and fuses this with existing biopolymers to improve their functionality. The result is a diverse and flexible product range across three segments: bags and film, rigid packaging and paper coatings.
"Capa is used in all three as a component to boost the performance of the end product, and our customers can pick and choose how to combine them to find the optimal solution," Zellner says. "We are presenting a toolbox, because having options and being flexible is critical for manufacturers today."
Whether flexible or hard, crystalline or transparent, Capa allows a material to be created that delivers full biodegradability without compromising on quality within its useful life. In compliance with EN13432, the product is certified according to the Vinçotte's 'OK compost' label and certain grades are also food-safety compliant.
While regular plastics are estimated to take a hundred years or more to biodegrade, Capa will biodegrade within a couple of months, making it a more sustainable alternative when waste management fails.
The fullest benefits of the material, however, can be realised within a controlled waste-management stream.
"In an anaerobic digestion facility, it will break down to produce biogas and eventually compost soil, but Capa can also go into a composting unit with organic food waste," Zellner says. "So you have multiple options, depending on how you combine it in the final bioplastic solution."
For the company's global product manager, Jesper Fahlén, the arrival of Perstorp's biodegradable toolbox is perfectly timed with growing demand from manufacturers, consumers and regulators around the world.
"Plastic is always a problem when it ends up somewhere you don't want it," Fahlén says. "But in the past, there were no solutions that combined biodegradability with high-performing plastic. This is where we can contribute with our biodegradable Capa and collaborate with packaging producers."
With significant investment into its development lab in Sweden and its pilot plant in the UK, more than 80% of the group's R&D efforts are currently directed at delivering more efficient and environmentally sound products and processes. It's an aim supported by Perstorp's history: founded 135 years ago in the forests of Sweden, the company originally dealt solely in natural raw materials. As it looks to the future, bio-based materials are once again a core focus, which is strongly linked to Perstorp's overall sustainability strategy.
"Being a chemicals company that wants to lead - and that is a leader in several segments - comes with a great responsibility from an environmental perspective," Zellner says. "That's what we live and breathe. We never create anything that is less sustainable than what we already have, and we are constantly assessing our processes and trying to make them better from an environmental point of view."