The market potential for biodegradables - and the plastics industry's related landfill and litter issues - generate continuing and sometimes heated interest from suppliers and end users.
``The issue was the same six or seven years ago in Europe as it is in North America now,'' said Frederic Scheer, chairman and chief executive officer of Biocorp North America Inc. in Hawthorne, Calif., and founder of the Biodegradable Products Institute.
``There are initiatives all around the world causing restrictions and bans, particularly for the bag industry,'' said Phil Ragan, director of market development for Plastics Solutions Canada Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia. ``We have got to get our act together as an industry. There are a lot of new developments coming along.''
Scheer and Ragan were among presenters at a March 11 meeting in Norwalk of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based California Film Extruders and Converters Association.
The plastics industry continues to deal with a decade-old black eye from the disastrous marketing of supposedly degradable bags of starch, polyethylene and additives.
An attendee called for industry action now.
``When [patrons] see that bag or cup floating down the gutter with the Taco Bell or KFC design, we are the ones that take the hit,'' said Skip Leonard, a real estate manager in Irvine, Calif., with Yum! Brands Inc., owner of the KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silvers and A&W restaurant brands.
``I am looking to you to set it all straight. You are the experts. ... You folks have to come up with a solution.''
``Something has to be done,'' said Bill Roley, Orange County senior planner and watershed coordinator with the California Department of Water Resources in Glendale, Calif.
A Chinese specter was raised. There is ``a lot of China activity [with] similar technology,'' said another speaker, Jeffrey McGlaughlin, Biomax global account executive with DuPont Co.'s packaging and industrial polymers unit in Wilmington, Del., and current BPI president.
McGlaughlin noted efforts to harmonize standards and programs for some products through BPI in the United States, the Biodegradable Plastics Society of Japan and Germany-based DIN Certco GmbH. In April 2002, the three organizations agreed to recognize the results of tests in each other's laboratories.
Scheer started Biocorp 10 years ago in Europe and imports its BPI-certified biodegradable food and waste bags to the United States. ``I would be happy to make [the products] with you in California rather than in Germany,'' Scheer said. Moisture and heat break down the resin.
A decade ago a Biocorp composting bag was 10 times more expensive that a standard plastic bag. Now, it is 21/2 times more expensive, Scheer said.
PSCI markets EPI Environmental Plastics Inc.'s degradable plastic additives technology to end users such as grocers, manufacturers and the military.
Ragan contrasted plastics' market successes during the past century and what might lie ahead.
``A paradigm of the 21st century is taking this wonderful product, which is so ubiquitous in every sense of the word, and finding a way to put it back into nature's useful biocycle,'' he said.
A related discussion titled ``Biodegradables: Back for Another Run?'' is scheduled during the Film and Bag Federation conference, which is set for April 27-29 in St. Petersburg Beach, Fla. Participants are David Wiles, a polymer scientist retired from the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, and Ramani Narayan, professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., and an American Society for Testing and Materials International subcommittee chairman. The Film and Bag Federation is a business unit of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.