Total Corbion PLA – A New Kind of Plastic

We look at how a collaboration between a petroleum company and a bio-chemical company has led to an exciting new project in sustainable plastics.

Corbion is food and biochemical company based in Amsterdam, Total is a French multinational oil and gas company. In 2017 the two companies came together to form Total Corbion PLA, bringing together Total’s technical and marketing knowledge, and their leading position in polymers with Corbion’s expertise across the lactic acid and biopolymers sectors.

“It was born from a perfect strategic alignment between Corbion being the world’s largest lactic acid producer with a strategy built around sustainability, and Total being an energy company committed to becoming the responsible energy major, with an ambition that includes developing in biofuels, biopolymers and polymer recycling,” explains Stephane Dion, Total Corbion PLA’s CEO.

The company’s manufacturing facilities are based in Rayong, Thailand, with headquarter based in Gorinchem, the Netherlands and teams extending to the US, China and Japan but across all their locations the company shares one mission.

“Our core belief is that PLA bioplastics can have a real and meaningful impact toward creating a better planet for current and future generations,” Dion says. “The biobased nature of PLA means that it reduces our carbon footprint while also contributing to the circular economy through mechanical and chemical recycling. The compostability of PLA enables the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions via diversion of organic wastes from landfills to industrial composting.”

Plant-based Plastic

The joint venture’s new facility in Rayong, Thailand, is going to play a key part in realizing that mission. It consists of two plants, integrated on one site with Corbion’s largest lactic acid plant, which produces lactic acid by fermentation of raw cane sugar. The sugarcane used is grown locally supporting the principles of sustainable agriculture. The JV’s lactide plant first transforms the lactic acid into lactide, then its PLA plant polymerizes the lactide into polylactic acid or PLA. Thus PLA is a bioplastic polymer made from 100% renewable, plant-based feedstocks, instead of the oil-based feedstock traditional polymers are made from. As well as having a greener manufacturing process, PLA is also biodegradable, while its performance properties are no less than those of conventional polymers.

“The largest market today is food packaging,” says Dion. “This is largely due to the extra end-of-life solutions PLA offers when compared with traditional, oil-based plastics. For example, a PLA coffee capsule that has passed the relevant testing standards can be industrially composted along with the coffee in it and other organic waste. The capsule will break down leaving nothing behind except water, CO2 and biomass. The same can be said of plastic bags, which are another large market for us. A PLA plastic bag can be seen as dual-use: after its primary use of bringing home groceries from the store, the bag can then be used to collect valuable, nutrient-rich organic household waste. The bag together with the waste can be industrially composted, thus the bag fulfilled two valuable roles, and the PLA bioplastic material has closed the loop and been returned to the soil as fertilizer.”

However, that’s only a small part of the range of applications, which is already diverse and has a limitless potential to develop further, as Dion points out, “As innovation drives the performance of this polymer to new heights, we see new markets opening up, both within the packaging and beyond.”

The bio-based polymer industry has been at the top of Thailand’s list of targeted industries for many years as it presents one of the best examples of creating high value-added out of local agricultural raw materials. To support these industries, the Board of Investment of Thailand (BOI) offers incentives as part of the Thai Government’s efforts in implementing the bio-economy and circular economy concepts. Thailand offers a range of advantages, including the availability of raw materials and a strong supply chain with many downstream processing industries. Investments in bioplastics in Thailand by such global players as Total Corbion PLA echo the vote of confidence in the country’s potential as a bio-based chemicals production hub.

A Successful Team

Building a 100+ million dollar world-class manufacturing facility in a young industry using a fairly novel technology is a project that brings its own challenges with it, even beyond the typical issues of time and budget any large project must tackle. “At the same time, we had our hands pretty full with setting up a new company and actively preparing our entry to the market,” Dion says.

“I could give you many figures about the project: the volume of concrete and steel used in the construction, the number of equipment installed, the number of contractors and suppliers involved, etc. I will give you just one specific figure: 3 million. This is the number of working hours it took to build and start-up this plant, and most importantly: all of these were executed safely.”

The plant was completed mid-2018, commissioned and started up by the end of 2018, marking a major milestone for both the joint venture and the bioplastics market. With the additional 75,000 tons per year produced by this plant alone, the global production capacity of PLA bioplastics increased by almost 50%, to 240,000 tons per year.

Total Corbion PLA was able to achieve this thanks to good preparation and good project management.

“Our parent companies Total and Corbion, who are both experienced in project management, have provided great support to the project team to help us through the unavoidable challenges we bumped into along the way,” Dion says. “Most importantly, we have skilled, highly motivated teams who gave their utmost to deliver the project safely, on time and on budget. In fact, we are very fortunate to have a management team, and staff in general, with incredible dedication and drive. So if one single word could summarize how we managed to overcome the challenges, it is surely teamwork.”

This meant teamwork not just within the company, but between Total Corbion PLA and its partners.

“The project was managed by a director reporting internally to the steering committee with representatives from the two parent companies, including myself and a few others; the project director was supervising and there was one main contractor appointed for the project, TKIS,” Dion explains. “J-Tec supplied us with the packaging line for PLA: this is the most important ancillary equipment after the actual chemical process, this is how we go to making the ‘big bags’ of PLA pellets that we supply to our customer. They were a supplier we’ve had a very good working relationship with.”

A PLA Future

The state-of-the-art plant has been up and running since the end of 2018. With more than 20,000 tons of Luminy® PLA produced and sold around the world year to date, business is ramping up nicely. Total Corbion PLA’s most immediate goal is to ensure safe and smooth operation: keeping a constant focus on safety while climbing the experience curve and optimizing production and plant efficiency.

“We are also thinking about growth, and have started engaging with our shareholders to work on such expansion plans,” Dion says. “Our wider goals as a company are to consistently serve high-quality PLA to existing and future customers around the world, develop new PLA applications and new innovative solutions based on the intrinsic properties of PLA and PDLA, and thus contribute to the move towards a circular economy, ensuring the sustainability of our planet for generations to come.”

He concludes, “This has been an incredible ride so far, for Total Corbion PLA and personally!”

Pull Quote: “Our core belief is that PLA bioplastics can have a real and meaningful impact toward creating a better planet for current and future generations.”

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