Four reasons why bioplastics have been perceived as underachieving. 



I was recently asked by a colleague, “What is the largest roadblock to more universal acceptance of bioplastics usage in packaging?”  Like any broad question involving a new technology or broad market, the question requires more than a sound bite to answer.  So here goes...

Market expectations for bioplastic usage were initially hyped as this wonderful technology that would replace traditional plastics in all applications.  Some predictions say they will replace 20% of all plastics. Who were the proponents of these lofty predictions kidding?  They certainly were not uttered by people with knowledge of market development realities or experience in the plastic industry.  So why haven’t bioplastics captured a larger market share than their reported 1-2% of total plastic usage?  There are four reasons: 
  1. Performance is not matched to brand owner or consumer expectations;

  2. Time-line to market acceptance not realistic;

  3. Bioplastic companies marketing efforts not given enough field support and

  4. Difficulties selling to an uninformed customer base and an uninformed end-user base. 
None of these reasons should be surprises to anyone who understands the very complicated task of introducing new products to a new customer base.  Noticeably absent from this list is price and its effect on the value proposition of bioplastics.  Due to its complexity, that it will be addressed in later discussions. Let’s look at each of these. 

1. Performance versus expectations

First, performance is not matched to brand owner or consumer expectations.  The most obvious example of this is the area of biodegradable plastics.  The average consumer believes if you throw a film wrapper out the car window it will degrade in the ambient environment in a ‘reasonable’ amount of time thus eliminating litter.  Not so.  For a bioplastic to truly behave in this fashion, which is possible but not practical, it would not have the set of properties to withstand the rigors of manufacture, distribution, shelf life, product safety and barrier. It would not perform its role as a package, thus the disconnect.

2. Unrealistic timeline

Secondly, the time-line to market acceptance is not realistic.  Market development is a tough business.  Even with an established customer from an existing vendor relationship a new offering can take 8-16 months from introduction to commercialization.  Metabolix (www.metabolix.com), FkuR (www.fkur.de), Cereplast (www.cereplast.com), etc. are relatively new companies compared to DuPont (www.dupont.com), Dow (www.dow.com) and BASF (www.basf.us). Additionally many of these bioplastic companies are agricultural-based, not polymer-based companies; therefore many had to learn knowledge of supply chain, distribution, selling effort, etc. needed to develop rapid footholds in the plastic industry.

3.  Marketing efforts need more support

Thirdly, bioplastic companies marketing efforts not given enough support is another reason for the low level of sales.  Since many of the bioplastic suppliers are new companies within the last ten years they have started from limited manpower resources.  To effectively market a new product nationally in the plastic industry one needs a sales/ market development/tech service force of at least 10-15 individuals in the field to effectively build a new offering business.  Most of the new bioplastic companies come in under that number of individuals supporting the business in the field.

4. Lack of information undermines sales

Lastly, the difficulties in selling to an uninformed customer base and an uninformed end-user base are the biggest deterrent to meeting initial sales projections.  The amount of misinformation and lack of basic bioplastic knowledge at the converter, brand-owner and consumer level in this industry is staggering. When a new market development effort has to incorporate an educational component and overcome misconceptions of what it is, one is marketing the process beginning in a hole.  I’ve had one bioplastic company market development executive tell me that 70% of his job is educating his customers and brand-owners about bioplastics in general before he even gets to a discussion on the merits of his particular offering. All the listed reasons have contributed to the low level of sales bioplastics have reached to date.  The basic question one has to ask is if current sales levels are what should be expected or were expectations set too high by industry executives unfamiliar with the market infrastructure they were entering?  Is media hype driven by lofty press releases written to gain investor seed money rather than reflecting marketplace reality? 

I submit the current status of sales in this industry is what could reasonably be expected at this point in the life cycle of bioplastics.  The discussion gets more complex when one factors in the extremely high growth expected from the bio-based products coming from the various drop-in technologies being developed as replacement for traditional petro-based HDPE, PET and PP.  The bottom line: Bioplastics are here to stay, they are meeting brand-owner and consumer needs and they are being designed to meet performance requirements and end-of-life options one application at a time. The whole process just takes time.

Jeff Timm has spent more than 35 years in the plastics industry with Fortune 100 companies. The last six years have been as managing principal for Timm Consulting, Franksville, WI, a plastics business and market development consultancy focusing on bioplastics. Timm can be reached at phone 272-880-7353 or:
jeff@timmconsulting.net
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