When it comes to commercializing its biodegradable polylactide resin, NatureWorks LLC is letting customers be its guide.
``Customers aren't just saying `Here's my widget, change it to PLA,' '' commercial director Snehal Desai said. ``Now they're doing more work and research and coming to us with new ideas.''
Desai updated PLA's progress - which was helped a great deal by last year's acceptance for produce containers at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - at the Plastics News Executive Forum, March 6-8 in Tampa.
To date, most PLA innovation has occurred in the thermoforming category, where acceptance has grown to the point where some processors are asking for one-year, fixed-price contracts, Desai said.
That acceptance gives other processors comfort, he explained. ``They don't have to be the first, so it's not risky. They realize they can go ahead and do this.''
Minneapolis-based NatureWorks - a unit of Cargill Inc. - has been operating a 300 million-pound-capacity plant in Blair, Neb., since 2002. As costs for standard oil-based resins have gone up, per-pound prices for corn-based PLA have dropped under $1, making the materials more competitive.
But at the same time, NatureWorks has needed to be cautious with its growth, which has included adoption by produce leader Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc.
``We're not telling people to put a high density polyethylene milk jug into PLA,'' Desai said. ``We're not going after applications that don't make sense.''
Current successful applications include rigid food containers, water bottles and tableware such as cutlery and plates. The materials also are being used in Walkman parts by Sony Corp., interior auto parts by Toyota Motor Corp. and computer cases by Fujitsu Ltd.
The Whole Foods grocery chain also was an early adapter in a number of uses. On the drawing board are uses in foam technology and metallized film.
The lesser environmental impact of PLA vs. oil-based materials also isn't lost on NatureWorks' customers, according to Desai.
Changing a million 12-ounce cups from PET to PLA would equal reducing gasoline use by 4,000 gallons, or enough electricity to power 100 homes, he said. Changing a million 20-ounce bottles in the same manner would eliminate the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving a car 19 miles.
As NatureWorks moves ahead, Desai said its customers still will have the final word.
``This industry is very good at finding ways to make materials work to meet applications,'' he said.