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This startup’s plant-based plastics promise circularity. Can it deliver?

Avantium bottles
Avantium

"You don't need one drop of petroleum. It’s all plant-based. The carbon footprint is less than 50 percent of petroleum-based plastics. And it’s fully recyclable, so it’s really circular."

That’s the promise Avantium CEO Tom Van Aken makes about his company’s new plastic material.

Avantium's YXY plants-to-plastics technology catalytically converts plant-based fructose syrup from corn and wheat sugars into PEF (polyethylene furanoate). The approach has attracted global, name-brand partners including Coca-Cola, Danone and Carlsberg. According to Avantium, the PEF could serve as an alternative to polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which uses fossil fuels. 

Avantium's relationships with Coca-Cola and Danone reach back to 2012, and the two companies are shareholders in the company. When Avantium first started working with the two food and beverage giants, it didn’t have the data to prove its product was safe and applicable for food-grade plastic applications. Its 10-ton pilot plant built in 2011 was used for such customer trials and experimentation.

Eight years later, however, Avantium says it finally has worked out the kinks in the purification process. The biggest early obstacle for its renowned partners was the slightly greenish tinge created in the PEF bottles. Most food-grade plastic needs to be completely clear. Over time, Avantium was able to create truly transparent bottles or ones with crisp colors needed by the food industry. 

But while the PEF had some undesirable qualities for food-grade plastic, the team also stumbled upon a few unintended positives of the new material.

According to Van Aken, unlike PET, the PEF molecule’s orientation isn’t completely linear — that means it creates a better barrier against air and other substances. For example, Van Aken said PEF’s oxygen barrier is 10 times better than PET, its CO2 barrier is six times better and its water barrier is twice as good. 

"It is not something that we have designed," Van Aken said. "It’s something that is inherent to the molecule."

Why is that important? Those qualities make PEF advantageous for fruit juice or beer companies where keeping oxygen out and CO2 in is the main function of the packaging, he said. That could mean a longer shelf life alongside the environmental sustainability benefits of the material. 

But the true test of a possible industry-disrupting technology is scaling, especially in an industry as large and expansive as plastics.

"The technology is now fully validated and proven," Van Aken said. "It’s now really about market development. Making sure we could achieve the yields, but also the quality of products that we were that the market requires."

Avantium needs to prove it can scale its promise to a commercial size that warrants its impressive partnerships. The company recently broke ground on its first flagship plant in the northern Netherlands. By 2023, the plant will be able to produce 5,000 tons of PEF, according to the company. While that is pretty small for a plastic facility, it's quite an upgrade from its current current 10-ton-per-year capacity.

That relatively modest production capacity means that Avantium is likely to be found in small market applications to start. 

"With smaller-scale plants, price points are going to be somewhat higher," Van Aken said. "So [the material] is going to start off as [packaging] for niche products that want to send a sustainability message."

A bonus for Avantium and its partner brands is that the PEF resin can be used at most conventional bottle-making facilities just by adjusting the temperatures a few degrees lower and adjusting a few settings to compensate for the material’s increased brittleness, according to Van Aken. That means no new equipment is needed.  

But the true promise of Avantium’s plant-based plastic comes at the end of a bottle's life. During any polymer recycling process, the poly chains get shorter until eventually, recycling is no longer viable. Avantium has the technology to extend the polymer changes, not indefinitely, but many times to increase the recycling life of its product, according to the company. And if the bottle doesn’t make it to a recycling plant, it can be degraded by common microbes found in landfills.  

"And if due to human error, [the plastic] ends up in the environment, then it will degrade much faster," Van Aken said. "Conventional plastics take hundreds of years before they’re gone. With our plastics, this happens in a matter of years. It’s something that doesn't accumulate in nature, but is broken down."

Avantium is part of the rise of plant-based plastics that is sweeping the industry. Emerald Brand, in New York, creates single use paper and plastic food containers out of biomaterial from sugar and wheat. For Plantic, the biomass of choice is corn, to produce its plastic packaging that simply dissolves in water for brands such as Cadbury Schweppes.

But it seems as if the world might be wide enough for all of them. According to Fortune Business Insights, the bioplastics market will reach almost $20 billion by 2026, a 16.2 percent compound annual growth rate from 2018’s $6.02 billion market size. 

With the plastic industry turning its eye towards our food sources, there is concern about whether plants fit for human consumption really should be used as feedstocks by billion-dollar plastic companies. Van Aken said this is why Avantium’s next innovation will focus on using renewable feedstocks and other non-edible bi materials. 

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