U.S. natural polymer sales generated revenues of $4.95 billion in 2012, according to the latest market report from Transparency Market Research (TMR). Demand is expected to remain on the rise in the next few years, growing at a compound annual rate of 6.2% between 2012 and 2018. If that prediction proves right, the market will be worth $7.12 billion by the end of the forecast period.

The publication attributes the expansion of the U.S. natural polymer market primarily to rising demand for non-petroleum based and environmentally friendly products. Pharmaceutical applications are playing a major role in this growth amid accelerating demand for excipients, binder and filler in directly compressed drugs, wound dressings and the treatment of arthritic joints, among other uses.

In terms of products, TMR segments the natural polymers market into cellulose ether, starch and fermentation products, protein-based polymers and others. Cellulose ether has been the dominant product category on the U.S. market when it comes to demand and this is expected to remain the case throughout the forecast period. Cellulose ether is most widely used in medical applications, construction, oilfields, food and beverage, cosmetics and personal care products. In 2012, cellulose ether accounted for 36.5% of total U.S. consumption of natural polymers.

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Cellulose is produced through the photosynthesis process of cotton, wood pulp and other plants. The list of key cellulose ethers features methyl cellulose (MC), hydroxyethyl cellulose (HEC), carboxymethyl cellulose (CMC) and microcrystalline cellulose (MCC). MC has a vast range of uses, among them as thickener and emulsifier in food and cosmetic products and a performance additive in construction materials. HEC is widely used in cosmetics, detergents and other household products. CMC also finds wide application in food production as a thickener and emulsion stabilizer. It is also employed as a thickening agent in pharmaceuticals, while the oil industry uses it as an ingredient of drilling mud. MCC is another term for refined wood pulp and the pharmaceutical industry uses it widely as an excipient. MCC can also be found in a wide range of processed foods, where it may be used as an anti-caking agent, stabilizer, texture modifier or suspending agent.

As for starch and fermentation products, sales in that category are expected to get a boost from rising demand for pharmaceutical applications. According to TMR, this segment will grow at a compound annual rate of 12% through 2018, when demand will reach 479.3 kilotons.

With regard to application, TMR segments the natural polymer market into medical, food & beverage, oilfields and others. The dominant category here is medical, both in terms of volume and revenue. Last year it accounted for 25.6% of the total market value. Medical is also the application segment that delivers the fastest growth, with oilfields coming next on the list. Under “others,” TRM covers applications such as packaging, adhesives and sealants, cosmetics, toiletries, textiles, leather tanning, construction, and paint and inks. One of the key application markets is packaging. Packaging products such as form film, loose-fill and thermoform contain natural polymers like starch-blend and PLA (poly lactic acid). They also find wide use in the manufacture of skin and hair care products, adhesives, textures and cement-based plasters.