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Making plastic cups with a little help from bacteria
H&P Moulding in Emmen produces plastic products for special technical or medical applications. The company is experimenting with bio based materials and has produced cups from the bio based polymer PHA. It is a first step towards more sustainable products.
These posed a number of challenges to the moulding process. The quality of bio based polymers is more variable, for instance. The production process takes longer, the viscosity is lower, so the entire production process is different. Labrie: ‘But we managed to produce drinking cups for one of our clients, Limm Recycling, made from PHA.’ This polymer is produced by bacteria who degrade biological waste, like maize or even sewage. ‘Our customer is now testing this cup, and we expect it might be on the market next year.’
Experimenting other bio based polymers
In the meantime, H&P Moulding is also experimenting with other bio based polymers, like thermoplastic starch and PLA (polylactic acid) based polymers. ‘We are not product developers, so we respond to the demands of our customers. But if they want more sustainable products, we show them how bio based plastics can be used.’ In the case of medical products, persuading customers that bio based products are just as good as the traditional ones take some effort. ‘And in the case of the cups, we must show that we meet food safety regulations. Fortunately, this PHA is already registered as a safe product.’
‘Much of our products are disposables’, says Bart Labrie, CEO and owner of H&P Moulding. ‘That made us think about using sustainable polymers in our production process.’ As hospitals are not really keen on using recycled materials, the company experimented with bio based polymers. ‘We have a lot of experience in using different petrochemical polymers. This helped us to adapt to the bio based products.’
Producing PHA locally
Labrie is discussing the possibility of producing PHA locally, with the knowledge institutes under the Bio Economy Region Northern Netherlands (BERNN) umbrella. ‘At the moment, we have to import PHA from Japan and China, as they have the only industrial scale production facilities. But in this region, we have all the know-how and facilities to start producing a PHA production plant.’ That is the strength of this region, Labrie emphasizes. The entire production chain for production of bio based plastics, from agriculture and the bacteria that produce the polymers to chemical industry and production facilities like those of H&P Moulding, is present. All it needs is for companies, financiers and local government to get together to realize this opportunity.
Added value for customers
H&P Moulding is willing to invest in new, bio based production processes. But in the end, the customers decide whether they want these new plastics. ‘They need to be convinced of the added value of bio based products. Because at the moment, they do come with an extra cost.’ For some products, the price may be double that of petrochemical plastics. ‘So it very much depends on the market whether this is acceptable. Of course, we may be able to cut costs a bit, and if demand increases, larger volumes will also bring the price down a little.’ And in some cases, Labrie explains, the plastic parts they make are just a small part of a very large and expensive end product. ‘In these cases, the costs are less of an issue.’
The company also cooperates in an EU Interreg program on 3D printing and micro-moulding. ‘In this project, we work with natural fibres, like cotton, ramie or hemp. And we cooperate with regional polymer companies like Senbis Polymer Innovations or Green PAC.’ H&P Moulding thrives in the Chemport Europe ecosystem. Labrie: ‘We want to be innovative, so staying ahead of the competition in the use of sustainable materials is important.’