The world of bioplastics is poised for explosive growth, according to several officials whose firms are expanding in both bioresin production and conversion operations.
The products are improving on several fronts, said Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute based in New York.
The performance is improving; the price gap is narrowing, and converters are learning how to process the materials better, Mojo said in a March 17 telephone interview.
``Those companies that are trying to minimize their environmental footprint are looking at bio-based and compostable products as a goal of moving toward greater sustainability,'' he said.
The market has received a boost from several areas over the past year, including the announcement from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that it was replacing conventional packaging with NatureWorks PLA on certain fresh produce items.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture established guidelines last year under which bio-based products will be given preference in procurement programs under the federal government.
Officials discussed the topic at the recent Packaging Strategies conference in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., debating what's driving it in the market as a matter of market pull vs. technology push.
``The market has to require it for it to be successful,'' said Dan Abramowicz, executive vice president of technology and regulatory affairs for Crown Holdings Inc. of Philadelphia.
``I think they have made some great advancements,'' he said during a Feb. 28 panel discussion at Packaging Strategies. ``I actually started in that industry a couple decades ago. I think it's impressive to see the rapid progress that has been made, not just in the production of those materials but in the progress in their physical properties, so that now they look promising for a much wider range of applications than they did just a short five or 10 years ago.''
For the chief executive officer of Cereplast Inc. in Hawthorne, Calif., it's an idea whose time has come.
``I've been preaching it and preaching it for 15 years. I'm very enthused,'' said Frederic Scheer, CEO of Cereplast, in a March 16 telephone interview. ``Finally, we're waking up, which is good.''
His firm last year began manufacturing roughly six different types of resin at a facility located near Los Angeles International Airport, where capacity will be expanded this year. Officials are site selecting for another plant whose state location is yet to be determined.
``Basically, right now, we're at about 20 million pounds capacity,'' he said. ``By the end of summer, we will be at about 43 million pounds capacity. We have some plans on even growing that capacity further by early 2007.''
Scheer said the next frontier for the bio-based industry won't be about pricing. Instead, the next frontier is working with converters to get them comfortable with running the material.
``They can run it on traditional equipment,'' he said. ``We have several converters doing that now.''
In a March 6 presentation at the National Corn Growers Association Annual Conference, he highlighted macroeconomic and geopolitical factors that have combined to create an inflection point in the industry.
``Our burgeoning new industry must race to expand capacity to meet the demand for bio-based plastics which has been created by the new economic and political reality,'' he said.
``Politicians, academics and business leaders have now awakened to the fact that we are in a new world order. Peak oil and the need to wean ourselves from foreign petroleum sources, combined with new and more efficient production technologies driven by nanotechnology breakthroughs, have rapidly brought the bioplastics industry to the forefront of the economic growth arena, and we are ready for solid, long-term sustained growth.''
Several film producers are promoting their bioplastics products. At Marshall Plastic Film Inc. in Martin, Mich., officials added two converting lines in its facility to produce biodegradable and compostable film for use in lawn, leaf and agricultural film applications.
``We're hoping to capitalize on that market,'' said Jon Tellier, Marshall's vice president of sales and marketing, in a March 15 telephone interview. ``Right now, it could potentially be 5 percent to 10 percent of our business.''
The company has added PlastiSoft's Tori-Flex software system, which will allow the firm to add capacity and incorporate multiple facilities if and when it expands. Marshall uses BASF Corp.'s Ecoflex copolyester to make Great Green Earth bags, which compete with paper. The product is marketed through Zerust Consumer Products Ltd. of Twinsburg, Ohio.
``Municipalities throughout the United States require residents and businesses to dispose of organic waste in 30-gallon paper bags that can then be transported to composting facilities rather than landfills,'' said Budd Dworkin, Zerust's president, in a news release.
Earlier this month, Diamant Art Corp. of Toronto formed a marketing agreement with M2 Formulex Inc. to help Diamant promote its biodegradable film products to the North American market. Diamant makes a polystyrene-based, plasticizer-free stretch film for food-wrap applications.