Cereplast Inc. Chief Executive Officer Frederic Scheer gained attention at this year's Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Conference when he said he could guarantee material pricing for a year.
That's a different story than the one processors hear in the volatile world of resin pricing. But that's what companies such as Cereplast of Hawthorne, Calif., said they can guarantee when the feedstock is corn. Or wheat, potato or cassava, used to make tapioca.
Bioresins and sustainability were key themes at the conference, which ran Sept. 16-20 in Nashville.
``We need to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide and we need to divert from landfills in order to diminish the amount of methane being created and the amount of carbon dioxide,'' Scheer said Sept. 18. ``I think that is part of the drivers that we will see becoming more and more important in the years to come.
``I believe we are seeing that in California right now. California is probably the more advanced state for this kind of thing,'' he said.
Brand owners, most notably the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., will drive demand for those types of products, officials agreed, as will key legislative trends.
Officials said that many other brand owners have taken it upon themselves to bring those products to market.
``You can see by opening any newspaper, it is very fashionable to talk about bio-something,'' Scheer noted.
But hastily making products from bioresins just because sustainability and environmental consciousness are in vogue doesn't make much sense, officials agreed.
``Ask if [a product] makes sense,'' said Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute of New York. ``Ask if it's going to have enduring value. If it's not a real meaningful or sustainable benefit, at the end of the day, you're going to have a nice application but you're not going to sell anything.
``Make sure that you are comfortable that it's going to have an enduring value in the marketplace.''
Education is paramount to success in using those resins, and companies need to have scientific support behind any claims of biodegradability. The Titanic, for instance, eventually will biodegrade within 3,000 years, Scheer said. These products have to have a time frame, perhaps one or two growing seasons, in which they will degrade.
``Education is a never-ending chore,'' Mojo said. ``You have to educate your suppliers. You have to educate everybody in your organization and you've got to educate all the people downstream.''
Scheer directly addressed the needs of thermoformers to respond to market demand. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, has its own green procurement program. Those types of market opportunities will make success possible, he said.
``This has direct implication for people like you,'' Scheer said, ``in the sense that some of your clients are providers to the federal government for the green procurement program and, therefore, they're going to be demanding more and more of these kinds of products. The food industry at large is looking to fill this request. Why? Because it's making sense to use bio-based or biodegradable products that will be used for 45 minutes and to send it to a compost site.
``Providing sustainable packaging to consumers is in demand. There are a lot of brand owners now that are asking for this type of product,'' Scheer said.
Cereplast is working on its own alternative for white clamshell containers to be used in the fast- and takeout-food markets.
Metabolix Inc. plans to have its first commercial plant operating in 2008, in Clinton, Iowa, for its polyhydroxyalkanoate bioresins, made through microbial production.
Metabolix, based in Cambridge, Mass., so far has demonstrated a 11/2- to 2-inch draw for thermoforming applications.
``We're very comfortable with that,'' said Benjamin Locke, Metabolix director of government programs. ``Beyond that, for a deeper draw, we need to do a little bit more work.
``There are some issues in terms of controlling melt stability. But we fully intend to have a deep-draw grade by the end of the year.''
Metabolix later will name a separate company to handle sales and marketing of its products. The company is being careful about how it approaches product development, Locke said.
``We have a very limited amount of pilot production,'' he said. ``[We're] trying to choose our customers carefully over the net few months, leading up to this plant start.''
The company's resins can be injection molded and used in extrusion coatings for paper cups, for instance. Metabolix also is working on blown film and foam grades, Locke said.
The firm is working with the U.S. Navy on a project involving extrusion-coated paper cups that Locke said illustrates the need for biodegradable products.
``People don't usually think about paper cups,'' he said. ``They think, `Oh, it's just a paper cup.' But it's got a PE coating. You can't recycle it. You can't compost it. But in this case, now they will be compostable.''
The cups are showing good barrier properties and can be printed on, he said.
Still, officials don't expect bioresins to replace all types of resins.
``When you work with agricultural feedstocks, you cannot expect the same kind of results that you have with conventional polypropylene or polystyrene,'' Scheer said. ``We're trying, in fact, to get as close to the kind of properties that you need, but it would be misleading to say that you can substitute it immediately.''