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Bioplastics: a clean alternative?

The stakes of producing bioplastics on an industrial scale

Interview Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On February 2nd, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
The stakes of producing bioplastics on an industrial scale
Patrick Pinenq
Patrick Pinenq
market development manager in biopolymers at Total
Dimitri Rousseaux
Dimitri Rousseaux
Researcher in materials science at Total
Key takeaways
  • Each year, 360,000 kT of plastic is produced globally. Bioplastics still seek their place at industrial scales.
  • Total is turning its attention to plentiful raw materials, such as vegetable oils, starch and sugar cane.
  • With its two factories, in France and Thailand, Total will soon be able to produce 175kT of PLA annually.
  • Total believes that these changes must be part of a broader environmental vision that includes life cycle analysis and plastic recycling.

Bio­plas­tics are not just inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts. Their devel­op­ment requires estab­lish­ing rela­tion­ships between major con­trac­tors and poly­mer chemists. Alliances are need­ed in the indus­tri­al sec­tor to allow for new raw mate­ri­als, increas­ing the crossover between chem­istry and bio­chem­istry. Total is turn­ing its atten­tion to these changes in the industry. 

Patrick Pinenq and Dim­itri Rousseaux work in bio­plas­tic devel­op­ment at Total. They are at the inter­face between R&D and the mar­ket, where major deci­sion-mak­ers and spe­cialised experts are reshap­ing the indus­tri­al sector. 

We are see­ing new bio­plas­tics made from coconuts and shrimp shells. How do these look from an indus­tri­al perspective?

Patrick Pinenq. They are inter­est­ing from a sci­en­tif­ic and tech­no­log­i­cal stand­point. But from an indus­tri­al per­spec­tive they are niche prod­ucts because the raw mate­ri­als sim­ply aren’t avail­able in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties. In indus­try, scale is key. Over 360,000 kT of plas­tic is pro­duced glob­al­ly per year, requir­ing plen­ti­ful, cheap raw mate­ri­als. That’s why petro­le­um is so useful. 

Dim­itri Rousseaux. If you want to work with bio-sourced and biodegrad­able mate­ri­als, you need suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties to make an impact. Oth­er­wise, pro­duc­tion lev­els will remain neg­li­gi­ble. That being said, to pro­duce bio­plas­tics requires biotech­no­log­i­cal process­es, there­fore rethink­ing pro­duc­tion scales. Man­u­fac­tur­ing in clus­ters may be more use­ful than giant fac­to­ries, for example. 

But we still need to get these new poly­mers into the real econ­o­my. That’s why we’re main­ly look­ing at raw mate­ri­als that are avail­able in suf­fi­cient quan­ti­ties, such as veg­etable oils, sug­ar and starch. We want to ensure indus­tri­al scale pro­duc­tion; around sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand met­ric tons. That’s why Total is devel­op­ing our sec­ond PLA fac­to­ry at Grand­puits in Seine-et-Marne, in France. When its 100kT capac­i­ty is added to that of the Total fac­to­ry in Thai­land (75kT), Total Cor­bion PLA will be the world’s num­ber one PLA manufacturer. 

Are pro­duc­tion costs sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than those of petroleum? 

Patrick Pinenq. Yes, the raw mate­ri­als are more expen­sive. But there are a cou­ple of things to take into account. First, in a final prod­uct (con­tain­er and con­tent), like a pot of yogurt for exam­ple, plas­tic raw mate­ri­als rep­re­sent only a small per­cent­age of the over­all cost. Hence, the high­er cost is not just the inputs. New tech­nolo­gies, skills and invest­ment also make bio­plas­tics more expen­sive. So, these kinds of projects have to be devel­oped with a close eye on the needs of end clients who will bear the extra cost. 

Devel­op­ment of new poly­mers must reduce the envi­ron­men­tal impact of plas­tics, which requires coop­er­a­tion of every­one along the val­ue chain. When con­sumers are close­ly involved in a product’s end-of-life, they are also more inter­est­ed in the effects and ori­gin of the plas­tics we devel­op for them. 

In 2019, Total got togeth­er with Mars and Nestlé to devel­op chem­i­cal recy­cling in France. In Octo­ber 2020, Total announced the con­struc­tion of France’s first chem­i­cal recy­cling plant, in part­ner­ship with Plas­tic Ener­gy. The plant is set to start oper­a­tions in 2023, with a pro­cess­ing capac­i­ty of 15kT of plas­tic waste per year. Total, L’Oréal and Lan­za­t­e­ch have also just announced a world first: a plas­tic cos­met­ic bot­tle made from indus­tri­al car­bon emis­sions (in this case, gas emis­sions from steel fac­to­ries). This shows that all com­pa­nies in the val­ue chain are now con­cerned with its over­all impact. 

Is the work of poly­mer chemists chang­ing significantly? 

Dim­itri Rousseaux. First­ly, we have to con­sid­er a wider range of effects when devel­op­ing our prod­ucts, tak­ing into account their dura­bil­i­ty for instance, which is part of their car­bon foot­print. So, all solu­tions must under­go a life­cy­cle analy­sis in order to make sure they are envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly and avoid well-inten­tioned mis­takes. We have teams of spe­cial­ists for life cycle analysis. 

Sec­ond­ly, our indus­try is forg­ing alliances through­out the val­ue chain in order to gen­er­ate syn­er­gies. We are expand­ing our areas of exper­tise in R&D beyond our tra­di­tion­al remit, since we now have some skills in biotech, where we are run­ning lab­o­ra­to­ries and strate­gic col­lab­o­ra­tions. R&D is dri­ving the cur­rent transformation.