Officials at Cargill Dow LLC like to compare biodegradable resins to a submarine sandwich for bacteria.
Consider your basic party sub. When it first arrives, no one can imagine that the party guests will eat the entire 36-inch sandwich. But once it is sliced into smaller pieces, it is easily devoured.
Bacteria act the same way in an industrial compost heap. When they see a large piece of biodegradable film, they shy away from it at first. But once it is broken down into smaller, bite-size morsels, they dig in. The film disappears.
That, in a nutshell, is what drives a still-controversial industry that some say is poised for explosive commercial growth over the next half-decade. It's all about hungry microorganisms in compost piles.
Yet, it is a concept that North America still has to accept and embrace. A few major resin companies are banking that consumers will buy into the environmental logic behind the disappearing products, as parts of Europe and Asia already have. U.S. acceptance could set the biodegradable plastic industry, now a miniscule portion of the resin market, into overdrive.
At Cargill Dow, which wants to convert its abundant fields of corn to polylactic acid and then to resin pellets, the future is coming. But have some patience.
``There's not a lot to talk about yet in the U.S. channel,'' said Jim Hobbs, commercial director for packaging with Cargill Dow, based in Minnetonka. ``We're purposefully coming here last. This is the last frontier in the developed world [for biodegradable resin].''
The market could explode if companies such as DuPont, Eastman Chemical Co., BASF AG and the 50-50 joint venture between Dow Chemical Co. and agricultural giant Cargill Inc. have their say. Most of them are coming to America with new resins that could change the image of plastics.
Image changing has been a higher priority elsewhere. Plastic bags have been restricted or taxed in Ireland, Germany, South Africa, Taiwan and elsewhere due to concerns about disposal. Such concerns currently do not rank high with the U.S. public, said Frederic Scheer, president of Biocorp North America Inc., a Los Angeles-based distributor of biodegradable packaging.
A key issue is economics, Scheer said. In the past, the price of biodegradable resin has discouraged end users from moving forward with it, he said.
``There's more awareness in Europe, with regulations in place that are enforced,'' Scheer said. ``In the [United States], we have composting regulations in about 27 states, but they are not necessarily enforced. This market will not become mature until the price of biodegradable goes down substantially.''
Some film producers remain skeptical.
Before film can break down into bacteria-munching-size units in a compost pile, it must receive enough oxygen and water, said Joe Howard, vice president of technology with Applied Extrusion Technologies Inc., a maker of oriented polypropolylene film in Peabody, Mass.
That is why many back yard compost heaps do not work with the film; they require a professional's touch, he said. At the same time, the status of composting in the United States is murky, he said.
``It's not a simple process,'' said Howard, based at AET's technology center in New Castle, Del. ``And whether customers in the United States will pay more for a product that might or might not be biodegradable is another question.''
Even Hobbs at Cargill Dow agreed that the battle in the United States is an uphill one. ``We're a little bit more cynical [about the environment] than the rest of the world,'' he said.
Yet, in the face of some concerns, both DuPont and Cargill Dow have new products in the pipeline and high expectations for growth.
Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont has developed a line of biodegradable, modified-PET resins for films, called Biomax. For more than a year the company has sold some of the resins in Japan and Australia and is starting work in Europe, said David Ferretti, global business manager for specialty resins and chemicals.
The company now sells Biomax in three countries in Asia, two countries in Latin America and two or three countries in Europe, Ferretti said.
The resin is used in products including film for such areas as mail window envelopes, extrusion coating paper for book jackets, coatings for disposable paper cups, plastic cups and cutlery, plastic bags, film overwrap and a plastic sandwich wrap for quick-serve restaurants.
Those products, some under DuPont's Earth Partners brand, could come soon to the United States, Ferretti said.
One of those is the sandwich wrap, which DuPont plans to roll out simultaneously to Europe and North America, Ferretti said.
In North America, the company must work differently than in other parts of the world, Ferretti said.
``What's bought in North America is sold on performance and cost,'' he said. ``But we see a market need around product innovation and sustainable growth. There's a building environmental platform here.''
DuPont has spent years in its sprawling Delaware laboratories perfecting products from the material. A major breakthrough has been the development of better temperature performance for extrusion-coated paper cups, allowing manufacturers to make compostable cups that can stand up to hot coffee or the microwave, said Ann Hricaga, DuPont global technology manager for Biomax.
The principle behind Biomax is the use of aliphatic monomers integrated into the polyester. Those monomers create weak spots in the polymeric chains, allowing the material to hydrolyze and separate in an industrial compost.
The material then is consumed by naturally occurring microbes and converted to carbon dioxide and water, according to DuPont.
Company tests show products made with the resin almost entirely degrade within 63 days in a compost space.
They found that the resins do not disrupt plant germination, earthworm weight gain or the population of fungus or bacteria in the soil.
``We tested for toxicity runoff and found no issues there,'' Hricaga said. ``Radishes can even sprout in the same environment.''
Multiple manufacturers in North America are evaluating the use of Biomax, but none have announced commitments to launching products, Ferretti said.
Cost should not be a major factor, Ferretti said. While there is a slight premium, the products are highly competitive with paper and other materials and offer properties, such as grease-resistance on sandwich wraps, that make them stand up to the competition, he said.
Cargill bets on corn
At Cargill Dow, the joint venture started in November 1997, executives believe their product can be made less expensively than those offered by large resin producers such as DuPont.
Since polylactic acid resins come from corn without the use of chemical additives, their cost is not tied to the price fluctuations of those petroleum-based resins, said Cargill Dow President and Chief Executive Officer Randy Howard.
``We have the only product out there that is entirely renewable, that is naturally returned to the soil,'' Howard said. ``We're very different from petroleum-based products.''
The company also has made a major investment in production, opening a world-scale production facility last November in Blair, Neb., to produce polylactide, the raw material for the corn-based resins. Recently the second stage of that plant opened to make polylactic acid, the liquid used to form pellets.
That facility has a 300 million-pound annual capacity, said spokesman Michael O'Brien. And its size impresses other industry experts, who say biodegradable materials can only see a price drop if capacity picks up.
``Because of this, the price of biodegradable resins is going to go down,'' Scheer said. ``Price has been an issue for nine years, and a leap of faith by Cargill Dow will help decrease that price.''
But for that theory to work, Cargill Dow will have to sell its resins. After several years of development, the company now has some commercial applications in Europe and Asia. A major market has been blister packaging used to wrap such products as Sony Walkman radios and digital versatile discs.
In Italy, large supermarket chain IPER is using Cargill Dow's NatureWorks-brand resin in film to wrap fresh food and pasta at its 21 locations. The company advertises the resin's benefits in large store displays, Hobbs said.
Next on the market are bottles, both for single-serve milk and edible oils, Hobbs said. The milk bottles are available now in Europe, and transparent containers for olive oil and other cooking oils will be available within the next year, he said.
In a couple of years the company hopes to break into the carbonated soft drink and beer markets.
While the resin works with virtually any manufacturing process, it has not found as many North American takers. Cargill Dow's strategy is to gain acceptance globally before coming home with its product, Howard said.
``People will use it even if they don't buy into sustainablility or its use as a renewable resource,'' Howard said. ``If they don't like any of those reasons, they'll buy it because it will do as well or better than other materials and not hurt the environment either.''
The lack of a universal composting infrastructure remains an issue. But many consumers are not aware that more than 4,000 compost sites are available in the United States, Scheer said.
``There are more compost sites than there are landfills,'' he said.
Another fear is that smaller, noncertified companies could slow the momentum of the biodegradable movement, said Ramani Narayan, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University in East Lansing and chairman of the scientific committee for the Biodegradable Products Institute in New York.
His committee sets standards for biodegradable materials, making certain that product claims are true, Narayan said. While both DuPont and Cargill Dow are members of the institute, smaller companies are popping up with questionable claims, he said.
``The only cloud on this horizon is the fact that there are still products sold that claim to be biodegradable, such as starch [polyethylene] blends and additives, but are not substantiated by any data,'' Narayan said. ``We're concerned that the plastics industry will lose credibility as they claim things. Some of it is magic dust.''
Other companies believe they have solutions that work better than composting products. One of them, ECM Biofilms Inc. of Painesville, Ohio, sells a pelletized additive that helps existing resin degrade in a landfill, said President Robert Sinclair.
``Unless there are extreme conditions, our additive works to biodegrade products that are covered with leaves in a landfill, wherever it is located,'' he said. ``If a product gets thrown away and is out of the recycling stream, all the better. It will fully degrade and does not need to be composted.''
While the debate continues, there is some glimmer of hope that degradable plastics will pick up steam in the United States. Coca-Cola Co. is evaluating Cargill Dow's material after using it on a trial basis at the Salt Lake City Olympics for soft drink cups at its vendor stands, Hobbs said.
DuPont has seen the industry come a long way, Ferretti said. The company first started working on biodegradable resin in the 1980s, using it for fiber applications such as biodegradable diapers. But it found that the material was not ready, Ferretti said.
``It's a lot different than even five to 10 years ago,'' Ferretti said. ``North America is still lagging behind Europe and Japan, but I wouldn't count on that continuing. Today, we give you performance that's as good as other materials, and we can sell Biomax based on that.''