By: Steve Toloken
April 4, 2012
ORLANDO, FLA. (April 4, 8 p.m. ET) — Virginia compounder Eastern Bioplastics LLC has found a new, untapped raw material source — poultry feathers.
The Harrisonburg, Va., start-up is about to commercialize technology to mix plastics with some of the three billion pounds of leftover chicken and other poultry feathers in the United States to make what it says will be a cheaper, lower carbon footprint material for a range of applications.
“It’s a byproduct, and unlike some other bio-resins that are out there on the market, ours is the only one that doesn’t belong in the food chain,” said President and majority shareholder Sonny Meyerhoeffer. “Nowhere in the food chain is it used other than for animal feed or pet food, and it’s currently being pulled back from in the pet food industry.”
Eastern recently took delivery on its first commercial scale extrusion line, an Omega 95 twin-screw extruder from Bangalore, India-based Steer Engineering Pvt. Ltd. (Booth 5762), which helped it develop the process. It currently has a lab scale machine.
The new material will mix polypropylene or polyethylene with poultry feathers, with up to 50 percent feathers by weight, he said in an interview at Steer’s booth at the NPE show.
Unlike some wood fibers, the feathers bind well to plastic because they are a keratin protein, similar to hair or nails, and can potentially produce a stronger and lighter material, the company said.
Meyerhoeffer said the material can be used in automotive parts, office furniture and simpler products like plastic buckets. It’s also seeking approval from the Food and Drug Administration to use its compounds, which would significantly broaden its potential markets, he said.
“It’s a wide range of things it will be used for, anything that is hard and durable that is injection molded,” he said.
Eastern has some injection molding machines in-house, but plans to manufacture the material and sell it to injection molding companies. The company is also interested in licensing the technology, and is looking globally, Meyerhoeffer said.
“We’ve had interest from all over the world, not only the resin side but in the licensing technology side as well,” he said. “Our business model is you won’t have one big resin factory but you’ll have little factories following the poultry business.”
Meyerhoeffer said he started Eastern after being approached by Justin Barone, who at the time was a researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture and is now a minority shareholder in the company.
Barone was on a USDA team that had done the initial research idea, but he had been unsuccessful in three tries working with other companies to commercialize it before an acquaintance connected the two men in 2007.
Meyerhoeffer said he was intrigued by the research. He had a background in the poultry industry, starting a company, the Virginia Poultry Growers Association, in Hinton, Va., as a venture to save 130 turkey growers and a processing plant with 500 jobs, and served as president of that group for three years.
In 2008, he put together a business plan and formed Eastern Bioplastics. Today the company has 10 employees.
One of the challenges was creating a process that both cleans the feathers, which are obtained from poultry processing plants, and that can operate in a continuous, as opposed to batch, manufacturing process that is compatible with extrusion.
Another challenge was to make it economical and energy efficient, “going at it in an economically viable sense so you weren’t putting more energy in that what you’re getting out,” he said.
“You have to end up at an energy-plus situation or you haven’t accomplished anything,” Meyerhoeffer said.
The company has done some in-house life cycle analysis and is now commissioning independent LCA studies, but it believes the material can have a carbon footprint up to 30 percent less than traditional petrochemical-based plastics.
“That is huge for somebody looking at a building material and picking up LEED credits [for energy efficient buildings,” he said.