Monsanto Co. will stop production and research activity on Biopol, a biodegradable plastic, by year's end, and may try to sell or license the technology.
``The decision was made about a month ago,'' Larry O'Neill, spokesman for the product group, said by telephone. ``Despite our best efforts, we did not see an adequate market developing. We were concerned with the ability to compete with other plastics because of the price premium.''
The firm would not disclose how much of a loss it took on the business.
Biopol, a business unit Monsanto bought from Zeneca Group plc in 1996, develops and manufactures biodegradable polymers for consumer products and packaging. Monsanto produced Biopol through a fermentation process in Knowsley, England, and researched plant biotechnology in the United States.
``We were focused on single-use disposable products,'' said Mike Berezo, Biopol general manager, in a telephone interview. ``Those include coating for paper for food packaging, injection molded bottles and films for packaging. The bottles really took off in Japan where they were used for cosmetics. They worked well because Biopol is hydrophobic — it doesn't absorb water.''
Monsanto remains open to selling the business and technology as well as licensing any of its processes or technologies.
``We are currently addressing requests regarding different dimensions of the business; there are all different kinds of intellectual property surrounding the fermentation as well as the biotechnology,'' Berezo said.
Monsanto's exit could mark a turning point in the biodegradables market.
``Where we are with cost and performance is unacceptable,'' Berezo said. ``We made terrific progress on performance and how to use the material. Converters agreed that what we were doing was right. The issue is the cost for that performance.''
Biopol is a polyhydroxyalkanioc acid, produced by feeding glucose to a common bacterium, then adding carbon to produce a polymer. This costs nearly 10 times more than the process used to make conventional plastic resins.
Monsanto also tried to transfer the process to green plants, such as soybeans and canola. The firm had planned to commercialize the polymer-producing plants sometime after 2000.
The shutdown will affect some 35 Monsanto and contract employees. St. Louis-based Monsanto will strive to find work for them.