Futerro Bioplastics Production Plant, Belgium
In April 2010, Futerro opened the first-ever bioplastics production plant in Escanaffles, Belgium. The new plant will produce 1,500tpa of polylactic acid (PLA) bioplastics using renewable resources. Futerro invested about €15m in constructing the new plant.
Futerro was set up as a 50:50 partnership between Galactic and Total Petrochemicals in September 2007 to develop the technology for manufacturing PLA. The new plant will aid in testing and improving the consecutive steps in this technology. Full production from the plant is expected to start in 2010.
Although the construction of the new plant is being considered as a positive development, questions have been raised about the viability of the plastic produced by the plant. The trade association, PET containers recycling Europe (PETcore), says that bioplastics are not cost-competitive for the production of disposable packaging.
PETcore also observes that the production of bioplastics might just appear to consume less energy compared with petroleum-based plastics. To make an effective comparison between the production of bioplastics and petroleum-based plastics, the total energy consumption over the entire supply chain of bioplastics needs to be considered.
PETcore, however, adds that the market for bioplastics may increase in the future due to its non-economic benefits such as sustainability.
Bioplastics production plant process technology
The PLA production process involves two steps. The first step is the preparation and purification of lactide, a natural and renewable compound, from lactic acid. Raw juice is first derived from resources such as sugar beet and is fermented using micro-organisms. The lactic acid is derived from the fermented sugar using a technology that produces lactides of the highest enantiomeric purity.
The lactide produced is then polymerised to manufacture small granules of PLA. A two-step bulk process known as ring opening polymerisation (ROP) is applied for the polymerisation of PLAs. The process does not involve the use of any solvent.
The process technology used by Futerro comprises low-temperature technologies to prevent the degradation of products during the production process. It also consumes lower energy and produces a higher quality product.
Bioplastics plant financing
The project received aid from the Walloon Region of Belgium through its Marshall Plan.
The Belgian Government created the region to help various industries increase their competitiveness. It adopted the Marshall Plan to provide resources to companies setting up businesses in the region. The plan was allotted a budget of €388m to encourage research, investment and training projects in the region.
Both Galactic and Total are expected to significantly contribute towards the development of the new plant.
The lactic acid required by the plant will be supplied by Galactic. The company will provide Futerro with L-lactic acid and D-lactic acid to produce a range of PLA such as poly-L-lactide acid (PLLA), poly-D-lactide acid (PDLA) and copolymer of L and D lactide.
Total's research laboratories in Feluy, Belgium, will help to produce, test and optimise the products manufactured at the new plant.
Bioplastics plant feedstock
The main raw material used for producing lactic acid is sugar beet. Other resources such as sugar cane, corn and wheat can also be used. In the future, the plant will use biomass such as forest and agricultural waste to produce the lactic acid.
Biodegradable and sustainable plastic market growth
The new plant was constructed to fulfil the increasing need for biodegradable and sustainable plastics. PLA can be used as a substitute for polymers currently available in the market such as polyolefins, polystyrene, cellulose and polyester.
PLA's heat-sealing capabilities are comparable to polyolefins. Its aroma and odour-barrier properties make it ideal for food applications.
When compared with petroleum-based plastics, PLA is fully compostable and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Its properties make it ideal for use in sustainable applications. PLA's properties to traditional petroleum-based plastics may help in meeting future market demands and specifications.