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Turning bioplastics into child's play

By: Steve Toloken

June 13, 2014

Hong Kong-based product development firm Bioserie started with the ambitious goal of building a consumer brand around bioplastics. Its first effort, smartphone cases made entirely from plant-based polymers, hit the market in 2010.

Jump forward four years, and the business hasn’t lived up to expectations. But the small company hopes a shift to toy manufacturing can change that. In May it launched what it says is the world’s first line of infant toys made entirely from plant-based polylactic acid and additives.

“Our smartphone cover business did not do as well as we hoped for, but we have no complaints as it helped us develop the brand and high performance PLA manufacturing technology,” said CEO Kaya Kaplancali. “We believe toys are a much better category for our concept and we now feel ready to tackle it after four years of hard work.”

The company said it focused its R&D in the intervening years on improving the heat resistance and durability of its materials.

Last year, it was a finalist for bioplastics manufacturing awards given by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and Germany’s Nova Institute, based on its iPhone 5 cover made from PLA from Minnesota-based NatureWorks LLC.

“We spent over three years researching and experimenting with bioplastics,” he said. “We developed our own manufacturing technology for injection molding using a special blend of the best available bioplastic materials.”

The company subcontracts its manufacturing to plastics firms in Southern China.

Kaplancali, a former executive in the mobile phone accessories industry, thinks toys have more potential than phones because of growing concerns about how chemical additives impact children’s health.

As well, he believes there’s increasing demand for renewable-resource, lower-carbon-footprint products.

“Electronics accessories are not the best category to reach environmentally conscious customers,” he said. “An accessory is a secondary item and it always puts you in the lower level of attention, whereas with toys we can put our concept and our brand in the first tier of attention for consumers.”

The toy campaign is just beginning. Bioserie launched sales of its teethers, rattles, stack toys and toy cutlery in May on crowdfunding website indiegogo.com. The company hopes to sell them more broadly with toy retailers and websites later in the year.

While the company said it doesn’t want to “stir things up too much” with the petrochemical plastics industry, its marketing is aimed squarely at separating itself from traditional petroleum-based materials.

It prominently raises concerns about health effects of vinyl, phthalates, bisphenol A, styrene and heavy metal additives like lead.

“Most available toys are made of oil-based plastics [and] it’s very hard to know for sure that a product won’t have any negative health effects on your baby now or later,” said Bioserie co-founder Stephanie Triau Samman. “The information on toy packages are either inadequate, too technical for a normal person to understand or at times misleading.”

Bioserie said its toys are the first in the world to be made completely of plant-based plastics and materials.

“Lately, some companies introduced toys that were made of recycled plastics or toys that were made of a mixture of bioplastics and oil based plastics,” Kaplancali said. “However, to the best of our knowledge, we will be the first and the only brand to test and certify the 100 percent bio-based product claim.”

It said it’s one of the first companies in the world to receive 100 percent bio-based certification under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred program, and its products also meet ASTM standard 6866 for 0 percent fossil-based material content.

Kaplancali admits bioplastics have not had extensive studies on potential health effects of exposure, unlike the stacks of research on phthalates, BPA and other materials.

But he said bio-based materials are safer and more environmentally sustainable: “We are shielding the consumer from known oil-based harmful materials.”

He said he first become intrigued with bioplastics in 2008 while working in the mobile phone industry and wanted to work on bringing them to consumer markets.

“We’re providing a different choice, or alternative, for the consumer,” he said. “Ultimately the market will decide what’s best. This alternative did not exist prior to our work.”