ORLANDO, FLA. — Global food giant Groupe Danone has converted about 5 percent of its yogurt packaging to bio-based polylactic acid and is evaluating other opportunities to expand its use of the material.
PLA is currently used as a replacement for high impact polystyrene the company's Stonyfield Farms brand organic yogurt made in the U.S. and at a site in Germany, said Guerino Madeddu, rigid plastic upstream quality, development and services Americas for Paris-based Danone.
The move requires the work of the entire product stream to move forward, which is something a company the size of Danone can do more easily than small firms, Madeddu said during an interview at Innovation Takes Root 2014 Feb. 18 in Orlando.
With more than 20 billion euros ($27 billion) in annual sales, Danone has the ability to require its material suppliers to provide in-depth data on what goes into its products, so the company will not be surprised by a sudden media storm on some “hidden” chemical in its packaging, he said.
“Transparency is a requirement to work with us,” he said.
That information not only protects Danone, but also all of the suppliers in the chain, he said, since they all know what they are dealing with.
“Nobody wants to see their product on the front page of the New York Times in a story about a health problem,” added Nancy Hirshberg, the founder of consulting firm Hirshberg Strategic and a former Stonyfield Farm executive who helped the company develop its PLA packaging in 2010.
The interest in PLA for rigid packaging has changed, said Roman Forowycz, chief marketing officer for Clear Lam Packaging Inc. of Elk Grove Village, Ill., which offers PLA in horizontal form-fill seal packaging.
Four years ago, the only driver was that it would be a marketing angle for consumers interested in buying a “green” product, he said. Today, PLA also is starting to offer a more competitive financial prospect.
On a price per pound basis, PS is still cheaper, but because PLA packaging can be produced with a thinner wall and takes less space in shipping, it can be the same in a price per piece, Forowycz said.
Danone also sees the potential for PLA to offer greater price stability in the long run than a material based on petroleum.
Consolidation in the market also has reduced the number of competitive suppliers of PS to just three for Danone, Maddedu said, so the company developed a group to look at competitive materials that could fit into the existing production machines.
PLA is not perfect — for instance it cannot be used in a hot-fill line — but it can step in on many existing form-fill seal lines.
With that interest, Clariant International Ltd. of Muttenz, Swizerland, worked with Danone to develop chemical foaming agents that would reduce the density of PLA, said Frank Neuber, applications and development manager for additives masterbatches.
Using that combination, Clear Lam can produce packages using PLA that are 27 mils thick, compared to 36 mils for PS, Forowycz said.
Those kinds of numbers will continue to drive interest for major companies like Danone, which is aiming to expand its business in emerging markets, Maddedu said, and will encourage the company to look at more ways to bring it on line in the future.