The spate of recent product announcements, where NatureWorks LLC's Ingeo PLA resin is combined with an existing resin, reflects a strategy that NatureWorks plans to use more and more. The strategy suggests that the polylactic acid bio-based resin is no longer just a niche product.
“We are clearly broadening our product strategy beyond [pure] PLA resins,” said Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company. “When you combine PLA with other resins, you can broaden the properties of the resin and broaden your product portfolio. It is the best way to get into broader categories.”
The growing interest in that type of bio-based resin also reflects a change in thinking among consumer product goods companies in how they package their brand products, he said by phone prior to NPE2012. The firm exhibited its products at the Orlando show.
“You are seeing major brands — Nestlé, Unilever, Coke, Pepsi, and Danone — getting involved in bioplastics, which is a fundamental change in how they look at their product brand,” said Verbruggen. “Those companies now realize that this could be a very win-win for their brands and their sustainability commitment.”
And that, said Verbruggen, is even more important than the 20 percent plus sales growth NatureWorks has had the past two years, because it means a change in how people view bioplastics.
“Initially, we just talked to R&D people or sustainability managers and that used to be our entrance to a company,” he said. “But when we did that, we still knew we had a long way to go before a product would be on the shelves.
“Now we are talking to purchasers of resins or brand managers — and that is a very different discussion, both in terms of volume and outlooks into the future,” he said. “Now you are talking to the person who makes the decisions for the brands.”
The last two years confirmed that the bioresin industry is going forward from being an “embryonic niche product to a real player in the polymer world,” said Verbruggen. He said NatureWorks grew more than 20 percent in both 2010 and 2011. “And we expect to grow more than 20 percent again in 2012 and for the foreseeable future.”
In addition to the change in thinking among brand owners, the shift in direction toward combining PLA with existing resins to create bio-based resins also has helped move PLA out of that embryonic market stage, Verbruggen said.
NatureWorks' two most recent alliances were both announced in the last six weeks:
* Altuglas International Inc. teamed with NatureWorks to use Ingeo in combination with Altuglas' PMMA (transparent thermoplastic polymethyl methacrylate) acrylic for its bio-based Plexiglas Rnew resin, opening up a host of applications in display signs, retail display stands, large and small appliances, to name just a few.
* NatureWorks and biochemicals company BioAmber Inc., which makes bio-based succinic acid, formed a joint venture, AmberWorks, to target bio-based resins that can be used to make biodegradable food-service products such as injection molded cutlery and thermoformed cups, lids and clamshell containers,
“You are going to see NatureWorks continue to broaden that process through joint ventures and even acquisitions of companies if the opportunity is there,” said Verbruggen. “We know that no one solution fits all needs [of potential customers], so we are developing the right bio-based resins for their needs.”
The NatureWorks CEO added that he was very satisfied with where the company is right now — and with the increasing knowledge of companies that process Ingeo.
Verbruggen also said that the investment last October by Asian petrochemicals producer PTT Chemical Public Co. Ltd. that gives the Rayong, Thailand-based company a 50 percent stake in NatureWorks — agricultural giant Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis owns the other 50 percent — is a major steppingstone to future growth.
“First, there is a cash benefit,” he said. “They bring quite a bit of cash to NatureWorks. Second, they do a lot of things beyond PLA, so it positions us well for growth.
“Third, they are polymer players,” said Verbruggen. “They know, breath and feel the world of polymers. And, in order to rapidly grow NatureWorks, it is beneficial to have a partner in the world of polymers who knows how to further improve PLA.”
In addition, PTT is also involved in biochemicals, as it is building, with Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. of Tokyo, a $233 million plant to make bio-based polybutylene succinate.
The addition of a second PLA plant in Thailand — which is expected to come on stream in 2015 — is also welcome news to Verbruggen.
“The overriding factor for building that plant is feedstock diversification,” said Verbruggen. “Once we have that plant up and running, we can run on three feedstocks and that is a very big plus for us.
“Right now we are dependent on corn in the United States in the Midwest for feedstock, and if corn yields would be low, that could create a problem.”
The PLA plant — being built at the PTT complex in Rayong — will use sugar cane and cassava, which is a rootlike vegetable — as its feedstock for making PLA. That will more than double NatureWorks' PLA production capacity to 700 million pounds.
The company's existing PLA plant in Blair, Neb., has a nameplate capacity of 300 million pounds, and is currently operating at about 65-70 percent capacity, Verbruggen said.