Tim Colonnese had just returned to the United States in 1997 from several years working in Asia. He was looking for a job when he got a call from a business acquaintance, a Michigan State University biochemistry professor, who had a business idea.
So Colonnese flew from Florida to Lansing, Mich., on a cold February day, met the man and watched him pop a foam packing peanut in his mouth.
He says he remembers thinking: ``I flew up here to watch this guy eat Styrofoam?''
That's when the foam-eating colleague, Melvin Schindler, popped another peanut into a glass of water. The foam dissolved and Colonnese was hooked.
Five years later, Colonnese is president and chief operating officer of KTM Industries Inc., a small Lansing-based firm that is trying to jump-start the market for biodegradable plastics.
KTM extrudes its own corn starch-based polymers and uses that to make two products - building blocks for children and a foam packaging material aimed at companies willing to pay a premium for what the firm says is an environmentally friendly product.
KTM remains small, with 12 employees and about $1 million in annual sales. But it shared a stage with much larger companies recently, when it was one of four firms honored by the Society of Plastics Engineers for environmental stewardship at SPE's Global Plastics Environmental Conference. The conference was held Feb. 13-14 in Detroit.
KTM was recognized for its work developing bio-based polymer products, along with Sony Electronics Corp., Coca-Cola North America and General Motors Corp. Those three were honored for using products incorporating recycled content.
KTM is part of a growing interest in biodegradables in the plastics industry, but Colonnese said the firm has to fight consumer skepticism left over from earlier technologies that melded biodegradable material with polyethylene and other oil-based polymers.
``We feel there's been a deliberate attempt to blur that line,'' he said.
Colonnese claims his company's product is 100 percent biodegradable and is made entirely from agricultural feedstock. It is a mix of cornstarch, soy oil, water, and proprietary ingredients that Colonnese declined to specify.
Colonnese, Schindler and two other current or former MSU professors founded the company in 1997.
The company uses a twin-screw food extruder and licenses manufacturing technology developed by National Starch & Chemical Co. of Bridgewater, N.J. KTM extrudes sheet foam that it shapes into its proprietary product, a line of building blocks for children called Magic Nuudles, and in a new line of packaging foam.
KTM received a license from National Starch in late 2001 for the manufacturing process used to make its GreenCell protective packaging foam. There is already an established industry for starch-based packing peanuts, but Colonnese said the company wants to avoid that commodity market and focus on packaging applications for firms that ``have a clear environmental mandate.''
The foam would have to be used for products that cannot get wet because a simple shower can cause the polymer to dissolve.
Colonnese also sees a market with firms that want to meet new ISO 14000 environmental performance standards.
KTM has been growing. Last year, it moved from 4,000 square feet to a 43,000-square-foot factory, and plans to add its third extrusion line later this year.
Colonnese said KTM's foams meet the newest U.S. standard for biodegradability, ASTM-D6400. Colonnese said the company plans to seek certification from the New York-based International Biodegradable Products Institute, which uses a certification program based on ASTM 6400.
Ramani Narayan, a Michigan State University professor who sits on KTM's advisory board, is chairman of the IBPI's scientific committee. Colonnese said Narayan was granted a small number of shares in KTM for his involvement but he said, ``we view him as being independent.''
Steven Mojo, IBPI executive director, said independent labs handle the certification, and independent scientific reviewers are used to oversee the process.
Colonnese said the company brought Narayan on board shortly after forming because of his recognized expertise in biodegradable products.