While many questions remain about how emerging new products with oxo-degradable additives might upset the recycling stream, NatureWorks LCC is working to ensure that products made from its Ingeo polylactic resin can be separated, recycled and not adversely affect reclaimers.
In spite of having to trim its workforce by one-third in March, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based firm is not letting the economic downturn deter it from moving forward. It still is focused on becoming the alternative to oil-based plastic applications, particularly disposable ones. None of the layoffs were in production.
NatureWorks' long-anticipated second line, which will boost annual capacity from 150 million to 300 million pounds, will launch next month at its plant in Blair, Neb. Also, NatureWorks expects to choose a site probably in Europe or Asia for a second plant by mid-2010, with startup scheduled for 2013 or 2014.
We are still looking at 10-15 percent growth annually over the next three years, said President and CEO Marc Verbruggen in a recent phone interview. That growth is based on oil prices of $50 a barrel, he noted. I think 10-15 percent is pretty conservative, particularly looking at 2010 and 2011.
Before the economy nose-dived and oil prices plummeted, NatureWorks had been projecting 40-50 percent annual growth.
Since the 1950s, the world has taken oil that took billions of years to form and used it for products that are used for 30 seconds and then thrown into a landfill. From a bigger picture, that doesn't make sense. Twenty to 30 years from now, oil won't be used for disposable plastics.
If oil gets up to $100 a barrel, bioplastics can capture 10-15 percent market share in food service and fresh-food packaging because environmental and economic factors play into the equation, Verbruggen said.
Even though the company's Ingeo PLA resin can break down in industrial composting facilities, NatureWorks is working with several partners to create a recycling infrastructure and conduct tests that demonstrate its recyclability.
There are a lot of questions around recycling and we are doing a lot of work to make sure that our products can be sorted and recycled, he said.
Later this year, for example, Brussels-based lactic acid producer Galactic will start up an operation to turn PLA back into lactic acid, using its Loopla chemical recycling system that depolymerizes PLA through hydrolysis.
In the U.S., EnviroGreen Solutions LLC, a sister company of WRR Environmental Services Co. Inc. in Eau Claire, Wis., is using a chemical process to break down PLA and reuse it.
You only need temperature and water to recycle PLA bottles back into lactic acid, said Verbruggen, who expects to have an agreement by the end of the year with an undisclosed partner to build a PLA recycling plant in the U.S., with a likely capacity of 5 million pounds a year.
Clearly, it is not going to be a 100 percent NatureWorks facility, but it is possible we would take a minority interest in the plant, he said. Over the next few years, we see those small recycling units popping up in the U.S. and Europe so everyone knows they can bale PLA and where they can take it.
To reduce skepticism among recyclers, NatureWorks also has taken steps to demonstrate that PLA can be sorted and not contaminate recycling streams. Earlier this year, the firm released the results of tests conducted with three different manufacturers of sorting equipment. It concluded that automated sorting systems in use today can sort oil-based bottles from PLA bottles with an accuracy close to 100 percent.
Tests conducted on Oslo, Norway-based TiTech VisionSort GmbH machines showed minimum sorting efficiency of 97.5 percent using near-infrared sorting. Laser technology from Unisensor Sensor Systems GmbH, of Karlsruhe, Germany, showed sorting efficiencies of 96-99 percent, matching rates at which other PET contaminants are sorted out. The Aladdin near-infrared system from MSS Inc. in Nashville, Tenn., showed that Ingeo emits a unique polymeric signature and comes up as other plastics in systems designed to identify PET, polyethylene and other plastics.
In addition, black-light testing by Primo Water, which uses PLA bottles, found that when a light signature is injected inside the preform of a Primo bottle, the bottle will show that fluorescence under a normal black light.
The tests reinforce study results, released in 2008 by the Waste and Resources Action Programme in Banbury, England, that said NIR systems can remove PLA from mixed packaging streams.
The volumes of PLA are rising up, Verbruggen said. There will be enough PLA in the market, and on the industrial side so that recyclers will be willing to sort and confident enough to make that investment in sorting technology whether they are in the U.S., Europe or Asia, he added.
In fact, global PLA use is spread fairly even, with 40 percent of sales in the U.S., 25-30 percent in Asia (excluding Japan), 20 percent in Europe, and the rest in Japan. That breakdown has been pretty consistent the past couple years and we expect it to do the same going forward, Verbruggen said.
By application, he said food service and fresh-food packaging account for 55 percent of global sales and films another 15-20 percent. The company is also bullish on nonwovens, he said.
He said customers today use PLA for environmental reasons.
We are no longer cheaper, but our value proposition hasn't changed, said Brian Glasbrenner, Ingeo business director, Americas. What we sell is sustainability.
He noted that NatureWorks' new proprietary manufacturing process, implemented late last year, has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions from Ingeo production by 60 percent and energy requirements by 30 percent.
As a result, manufacture of Ingeo now emits 0.75 kilogram of carbon dioxide per kilogram of resin compared with 3.4 kg of carbon dioxide per kilogram of PET, and uses 56 percent less energy.
Right now, our cost of a clamshell is probably a little bit higher, but ... I expect we will be close to parity in three months, Glasbrenner said.