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Government intervention paves the way for bioplastics

Nina Ying Sun | PLASTICS NEWS CHINA

  Image by Hisun.

Ask Foxconn Technology Group: China's bioplastics industry may well be looking at the best opportunity in its history.

While bioplastics face headwinds in the marketplace as oil prices plunge, government policies can change the landscape.

Jilin province in northeast China imposed an administrative ban of non-biodegradable plastic bags and food service ware on Jan. 1 and has been following up with diligent enforcement measures.

A provincial government official, Song Gang, said at a July 8 biomaterials event that the ban will be escalated to a regional law and that legislative research has begun, according to state media reports. Jilin also plans to publish a catalogue of banned products, increase violation penalties, and introduce a recall system, Song said.

Behind Jilin's heavy hand is its determination to build a robust biomaterials industry in a province that lacks industrial development but excels in corn production and processing.

During the first half of the year, Jilin managed to bring online 10 manufacturing projects of PLA-based plastics products, all funded with investment from outside of the province, Song said. In addition, nine local factories switched to the production of PLA-based bags and service ware, capturing the demand created by the ban of conventional plastics items.

The province has replaced more than 2,000 metric tons of conventional plastics products with PLA alternatives in the first six months, Song was quoted as saying.

Such government interventions may have opened a new chapter for China's PLA market, and industry players -- veterans and newcomers -- are taking notice and action.

Taiwan-based manufacturing giant Foxconn is reported to be building a campus in Changchun, capital city of Jilin, to make CO2-based biodegradable plastics (30,000 tons per year), PLA (10,000 tons per year) as well as processed plastics products (8,000 tons per year), according to a report from government-run Changchun Daily. The local government reposted the report on its own website.

Foxconn (Changchun) Science and Technology Industry Park, which broke ground in April, touts a total investment of 1.7 billion yuan ($273.8 million), according to Changchun Daily. Phase one is expected to launch production by the end of the year.

Foxconn hasn't responded to Plastics News inquiries as of press time.

Foxconn's first endeavor into the bioplastics world appears to have started in late 2013, when it founded subsidiary Changchun Leiguan Environmental Plastic Co. Ltd. in Jilin province.

Leiguan declined an interview request from Plastics News, but its website said it has been certified by the government to make biodegradable plastic bags and serveware. It also lists production equipment such as Chen Hsong injection molding machines as well as extrusion and bag making machines.

Foxconn has been working on developing bioplastics for many years, Leiguan said on its website.

Existing players in the bioplastics industry also are trying to reap the benefits from the new regulations.

Wuhan Huali Environmental Technology Co. Ltd., which makes starch-based plastics and products, said it is working with a local partner in Jilin to supply blown-film grade material that contains more than 35 percent PLA. Huali called the Jilin ban "a great opportunity" in a June news release.

China's largest compounder, Kingfa Science & Technology Co. Ltd., is pushing for a blown-film grade compound it developed specifically for Jilin. Part of Kingfa's Ecopond Flex-262 series, the material is a compound of PLA and petroleum-based yet fully biodegradable and compostable PBAT, a polyester-based material.

Kingfa produces PBAT in-house and also works with PLA suppliers. It is the sole compounding partner in China for NatureWorks LLC, which made a pitch at Chinaplas in Guangzhou on how its Ingeo family of PLA products can help meet Jilin's new regulations.

Kingfa boasts monthly supply capability of 2,000 tons of bioplastics for Jilin and plans to expand as other provinces follow Jilin's suit down the road, the company told Plastics News in a statement.

That trend -- other regions in China replicating Jilin's model -- is looming large. Jiangsu province in east China, for example, is currently reviewing a bill that, similar to Jilin's, would ban all non-biodegradable shopping bags and service ware.

While single-use disposable items like shopping bags have been the main focus of regulations, some companies are looking into more reusable applications for bioplastics.

In fact, in a bid to address the durability issue of biodegradable shopper bags, some Jilin retailers have turned to non-woven bags that are made entirely out of PLA, according to PLA maker Hisun Biomaterials Co. Ltd.

Hisun argues that the 100 percent PLA non-woven bags are more appealing than biodegradable film-based bags that still use petroleum-derived material. The nonwoven bags are nice and thick and reusable, Hisun said in a statement, offering a truly sustainable replacement for non-biodegradable non-woven bags that have been widely used worldwide in the past few years.

Weng Yunxuan, a longtime industry observer and an official with multiple bioplastics associations, recently told China Chemical Industry News that China's bio-based materials industry has turned around after more than a decade of sluggish growth. Even products that used to be difficult to sell are now undersupplied, he was quoted as saying.

  Image by Kingfa.

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