Water bottles from corn-based polylactic acid, which disappeared with the bankruptcy of Biota Brands of America Inc. last April, are reappearing on the U.S market and elsewhere.
Primo Water Corp., a privately owned company founded three years ago in Winston-Salem, N.C., said April 7 that it began selling single-serve water bottles made from Natureworks LLC's Ingeo PLA resin this month in 19 different grocery store chains, including 2,300 stores owned and operated by Kroger Co. in 40 states.
Primo's single-serve water bottles will have labels made from PET and caps made from high density polyethylene.
The limited nationwide rollout comes after pilot tests at Winston-Salem-based Lowes Food Stores Inc., which has 106 stores, all but six of them in North Carolina; Hannaford Bros. Co. supermarkets and pharmacies in New England; and Sweetbay, a 100-store supermarket chain based in Tampa. Both Hannaford and Sweetbay are owned by Delhaize Group of Brussels, Belgium.
Primo wants to ``gain a significant presence'' in the bottled-water market by differentiating itself from other companies, said Brian Glasbrenner, global business and market development manager for Natureworks' Ingeo brand. He said Primo will use a regional strategy for distribution, rather than shipping bottles across the country.
The 16.9-ounce bottles will be sold in 18-packs of water. They are Primo's third product. The company also sells 3- and 5-gallon water containers made from PET at seven nationwide retailers, including Lowe's Cos. home improvement stores and Kroger's, and several regional retailers. It also sells water coolers.
PLA bottles made from Ingeo also resurfaced last September in New Zealand, when Corporate Water Brands Ltd. of Auckland introduced the Good Water brand made from Ingeo.
Both Good Water and Primo are hoping that marketing water in an environmentally friendly bottle made from a nonpetroleum-based resin will spur their sales, as it did for Naturally Iowa Inc., a Clarinda, Iowa, dairy firm.
Naturally Iowa's all-natural milk sales have skyrocketed 80 percent since the firm began selling milk in containers made from Ingeo PLA eight months ago at Balls Food Stores, a chain based in Kansas City, Kan.
But Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consultant Arthur von Wiesenberger, who founded the Bottled WaterWeb internet site, said Primo faces an uphill battle.
``Being an environmentally sound product, there is a niche there, but I am not sure that it is one that can pay the bills,'' von Wiesenberger said.
There are between 800-900 water bottle brands in the U.S., with private labels and brands from Nestle, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola dominating sales, he said.
``The small brands are fractions by comparision. It is going to take a lot of money to communicate to the consumer the point of differentiation with the product,'' he said. ``They are going to have to spend a lot of money on distribution, and they are going to need deep pockets to buy themselves time to succeed.''
There also is the matter of whether the taste and the product matches consumer expectations, he noted. Primo said independent blind taste tests conducted in six different cities between September and December showed that three out of every four people in a 7,000-person sampling preferred Primo water over a leading spring-water firm.
However, von Wiesenberger said there are other quality issues including how the PLA bottle affects shelf life, how it will affect the taste of water over the entire shelf life, how it will do in warm environments, and whether it will retain its shape over time.
``Consumers are in love with the PET packaging for water bottles because the water tastes good, it chills well in it, it has good shelf life and they like how it feels and looks,'' he said. ``And it's all recyclable. I don't see an alternative yet that can replace it.''
PET bottles today are recycled at a rate of about 25 percent in the U.S., but there is little PLA recycling, despite a NatureWorks' buy-back program.
Greenplastics Inc., a product stewardship group in Auckland that develops recycling options for PLA, has cautioned people not to put PLA bottles out for curbside collection. The group contends that PLA can't be commercially recycled until volumes are big enough to support a commercially viable recycling stream.
In the U.S., there still are concerns of PLA contaminating the PET reclaim stream because visually the bottles look alike. But, the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, a U.S. coalition of recyclers and materials recovery facilities, dropped its request for a moratorium on PLA use in bottles.