DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY (Nov. 6, 1:50 p.m. EST) — Cargill Dow LLC flipped the switch Nov. 1 at its Blair, Neb., plant, officially launching the first world-scale production facility for polylactide, or PLA, polymers.
The plant has the capacity to produce 300 million pounds a year of the company's starch-based NatureWorks polymer, which is made from renewable resources such as corn. The material is fully compostable and biodegradable, and already is finding its way into commercial packaging and fiber-industry applications.
Cargill Dow, founded in 1997 as a 50-50 venture between Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich., and Cargill Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn., has invested about $360 million in the project to date, spokesman Michael O'Brien said in an interview at K 2001, held Oct. 25-Nov. 1 in Dusseldorf. The new plant, on an expansive site, started with about 40 employees, he said. The facility will supply PLA resins worldwide.
Up to now, Cargill Dow has been producing the NatureWorks materials at a semi-works plant near Minneapolis, where the firm can produce about 13 million pounds annually.
The company also plans to step downstream next year into the processing business, by making PLA thermoformable extruded sheet and biaxially oriented film products, though strictly on a toll basis by hiring out production time at other facilities, said Jim Hobbs, commercial packaging director. Existing customers already are making some of those products, and “we want them to be successful first,” stressed O'Brien.
Among the customers using PLA resins are Mitsui Chemicals in Japan and Trespaphan UK Ltd., a British unit of Celanese AG. A couple of other big European thermoformers also are processing NatureWorks polymers into finished products such as clear drinking cups. No U.S. processors are making packaging products from the material yet, according to Jim Nangeroni, technical director of Cargill Dow's converted products group, though plans call for some clear PLA film to be used soon in twist-wrap candy packaging in the United States.
In Italy, 21 locations of the French-owned Iper grocery superstore chain have completed six-month, in-store trials and in January plan to introduce clear, lidded, NatureWorks-branded trays for packaging fresh pasta and salads. Using the environmentally friendly package “helps them to differentiate themselves,” said O'Brien. Additionally, Dunlop is using the polymer to package some of its golf balls, and Sony is using PLA film for packaging some of its mini-discs.
He said many such companies are using PLA products now, but are delaying committing to commercial quantities until Cargill Dow starts up its Blair plant and proves it can deliver the product.
The company a year ago opened a European office in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and at the K show announced it also has hired Jurgen Klein as business development manager, responsible for legislative relations and sales and marketing development of NatureWorks PLA resin in Europe. Most recently, Klein served as market manager for Union Carbide's biodegradable polymers group in Europe.
The process used to create NatureWorks PLA begins by “harvesting” the carbon that plants remove from the air during photosynthesis. Carbon is stored in plant starches, which can be broken down into natural sugars. The carbon and other elements in the natural sugars then are used to make polylactide. The process relies on basic fermentation and distillation as its core.
The process is said to use 20-50 percent fewer fossil resources than required by conventional plastic resins. And, because carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere in growing corn, the overall carbon dioxide emissions are lower than with comparable plastics.
Cargill Dow foresees potential applications possibly including injection molded bottles, foams, emulsions and chemical intermediates.