Today, companies that embrace bio-based resins have market drivers that support this choice. Fabricators move to bio-based resins because their customers are engaged and supportive. Green composites allow companies to differentiate themselves, and they get to connect with a certain segment of their customer-base that make decisions based on sustainability issues.
If we were talking five years from now about healthy growth in the bio-based resin market, what would have happened in that span? How can the market take off?
It will be hard for it to take off unless the cost structure changes. There needs to be more cost neutrality versus petroleum-based products. The good news is that we’re not that far away. Typically, a bio-based resin costs about 10 percent more than a petroleum-based resin, and that’s not a big difference to overcome. Actually, there was a time around the end of 2007 when we were seeing bio-containing resins that were lower in cost than petroleum-based equivalents. It wasn’t a long time, but it was there, and it will happen again. When it does, I think the industry as a whole will be in a better position because we’re more prepared and educated to offer these types of alternative products than we were back then.
Aside from costing slightly more, there’s a supply-chain and production issue. Today, availability of bio-based raw materials is much lower than petroleum-based raw materials, and some companies offer bio-based products only in short campaigns. If people can’t have confidence in the supply chain, not much is going to move beyond lab testing.
What can the industry do to help customers and prospects learn more about green composites?
Communication and education is the key. Ashland developed the educational web site CompositeBuild.com because of our work in bio-based composites. We knew we had a leadership position in green resin chemistry, and we wanted to understand the LEED market better. We sat down with architects, LEED consultants and designers and asked if they’d be interested in green building materials that contained bio-based resins. The response was, “That’s interesting … but what’s a composite?” Ashland realized that growth in the composites industry was less about pushing bio-based materials and more about helping to educate the design/build community and getting them to understand the benefits of composites overall. The site helps people understand what composites are, what the sustainability story is related to composites, and where they’re being used and why. There’s also a search portal that enables people to find different composite building products and then link to the web sites of fabricators and distributors of those materials. Ashland is trying to raise awareness of the industry at-large, and connect end users in the building industry to composite fabricators.
Also, the composites industry is trying new ways to educate the marketplace. The ACMA Architectural Division will be supporting outreach and awareness of composites, including green composites, to the architectural community by coordinating a composites pavilion at the AIA Architectural show, June 2014 in Chicago. More than 20 composite fabricators will be showcasing composite building materials and applications at the show. This is a first-ever composites pavilion at a major builders show, and I’m excited to see what happens.