By all accounts, the use of polylactide will grow among thermoformers in 2007, but its growth may be limited by the availability of the bioresin and processing limitations.
According to NatureWorks LLC of Minnetonka, Minn., 70-80 percent of its applications are in thermoforming. Its nameplate capacity for PLA pellets in Blair, Neb., is 300 million pounds.
``The growth that we experienced globally, we've more than doubled sales in 2006 over 2005,'' said Mary Rosenthal, spokeswoman for NatureWorks, in a Jan. 26 telephone interview. ``We're projecting into 2007, another 30 percent to 40 percent [growth] over that we saw in 2006. At least that's what we're targeting.''
While demand for PLA packaging is growing, some thermoforming experts expressed reservations about the material's low- impact strength and low heat deflection.
Low-impact strength is a drawback in some retail applications, such as stand-alone clamshells, according to one source. But the growth in food areas such as hydroponic and greenhouse tomatoes is supporting growth in PLA.
Some of the success is being driven by Wal-MartStores Inc.'s environmental and sustainability initiatives, and those organic and environmentaltrends being pushed by other food retailers like Whole Foods Market IP LP, based in Austin, Texas.
``Within the first quarter of 2006, we had already surpassed what we had done in the whole year 2005, in terms of PLA production,'' said Laura Pichon, marketing manager with sheet extruder Ex-Tech Plastics Inc. of Richmond, Ill. ``We are getting inquiries all the time.''
The company added extrusion capacity in 2006, but also is making changes like efficiency upgrades.
``We believe the more limiting factor is the resin supply,'' Pichon said. ``We're on allotment. We have been told we will have increase from last year available. We believe that the demand will be there.
``Because we maxed out what we were allotted in 2006, we were able to get more for this year. We foresee from the demand that we've been told for our customers, that we'll be able to supply them. There are people that are still inquiring. We have high hopes for this, within areas that can use the material, even with the limitations of low-impact strength and low heat deflection.''
In addition, the main conventional resin that PLA is targeted to replace, PET, has gone down in price over the last several months. During the course of 2006, some officials theorize that customers may have been more willing to source PLA as an alternative to PET because of pricing. Still, even though PET pricing is trending downward, others feel that PLA demand will be driven by mass retailers.
``At the end of the day, it's going to depend on what major retailers want to do,'' said JayWaddell, managing partner with Plastic Concepts & Innovations LLC, based in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
``If they say they want 50 percent of their packaging green-certified, that's a very important aspect that people want to look at. [But] it is a difficult material to process. There is some chemical work that has to be done with it. In the latter part of 2007, there will be improvements in processability of it. If you improve the processability of it, I would see it maintaining growth.''
NatureWorks' Rosenthal said the company is looking at optimizing current capacity through process improvements.
``Then we expect to have new capacity come on-line in mid-2008,'' she said. ``We really just started running the plant full-out in 2006. We're doing everything we can to increase capacity.''
At thermoforming machinery maker Lyle Industries Inc. in Beaverton, Mich., officials said 2006 was a solid year in terms of machinery sales, driven by PLA- and PET-related uses in applications like prepared and prepackaged foods.
Still, officials from the firm don't seem to be having as many conversations about PLA as they were six months ago, according to Lyle President Gary Sowden Jr.
That's not necessarily because demand has dwindled, Sowden cautioned, but may be due to the fact that the industry is past its preliminary phase.
``A well set up PET line will accommodate PLA,'' he said in a Feb. 5 telephone interview. ``So we don't necessarily hear about everything that everyone is doing. People are running it. There are definitely more and more packages out there being made of it. We're just not having all those real early discussions. I think what it reflects is that it's matured. Customers that want to be in it are in it.''
Still, one contract packager that makes its own blister and clamshell packaging said that none of its customers have specifically asked for it. At CWS Packaging of Norwich, N.Y., officials have known about PLA since September.
Tim Notter, its vice president of sales and marketing, said the firm was motivated to get into PLA from a meeting with Wal-Mart.
``To be honest, no one has asked for it,'' he said of the demand from its own customers. ``We bring it up to them.''