An estimated production capacity of almost 800.000 tons per year of polylactic acid (PLA) polymer in 2020. That is the outcome of a study by nova-Institute, based in Hurth, Germany. At present the total capacity of 25 companies amounts to 180.000 tons. Nature Works is the largest, its capacity being 140.000 tons in the US and Thailand. Other producers are considerably smaller. But by 2020, there will be at least 7 sites producing at least 50.000 tons PLA, whereas production capacity will approach a million tons per year, lactic acid being a sustainable base chemical which can be used for much more than PLA.
Or, like nova-Institute’s managing director Michael Carus put it in his company’s press release: “For the very first time we have robust market data about worldwide PLA production capacity. These are considerably higher than in previous studies, which did not cover all producers. Forecasts of 800,000 or even 950,000 t/year by 2020 show that PLA is definitely a polymer for the future.”
The study (Market Study in Bio-based Polymers and Plastics in the World), which will appear in January 2013, was coordinated by nova-Institute, and is based on interviews with producers of over 30 different biobased plastics worldwide. They used these data to construct a completely new ‘Bioplastics Producer Database’.
In the Netherlands, Synbra Technology in Etten-Leur is the largest PLA producer, its capacity being 5.000 tons. In line with nova study findings, Synbra, in a joint project with Suiker Unie and Purac, investigates scaling up its capacity in two steps to 70.000 tons by 2017. Jan Noordegraaf, Synbra Technology’s managing director, states that such nova figures are certainly realistic, even considering present low economic expectations. The same holds for Synbra’s figures. Synbra cannot put a definite date to its plans yet.
The interesting thing about PLA, being a biobased polymer, is that it can substitute polystyrene (PS). PS is a very big polymer, which can be applied in isolation materials and in many household appliances. But PLA is sustainable, and PS is not, and that is an important advantage to present-day consumers. Other big biobased polymers are biobased PE (polyethylene) and biobased PP (polypropylene), also produced from sugar; their main producer is Braskem (Brazil). BioPE and bioPP are excellent substitutes for oil-based PE and PP, not for PS. But PLA is. That justifies the high expectations for this biobased polymer.