ORLANDO, FLA. — When NatureWorks LLC began selling its Ingeo polylactic acid, the resin was an environmentally-friendly niche product with a corn-based feedstock.
Last year, though, the company marked 1 billion pounds of Ingeo sold. It is near capacity at its original production plant in Blair, Neb., and in the final stages of planning the location of its second plant, likely to be in Thailand.
It has new feedstock sources lined up, more in development and is targeting more resins that it can replace.
“Now if you're in the chemical industry, you probably say: ‘A billion pounds. So what?'” said Marc Verbruggen, president and CEO of NatureWorks during the Innovation Takes Root 2014 conference in Orlando Feb. 17-19.
“True. You look at polystyrene sales in the U.S. and it's what, 6 billion pounds annually? Seven billion pounds? It's significantly larger. But in the world of bioplastics, having produced and sold a billion pounds means that we have come a long way.”
Every new plastic has its growth curve, Verbruggen said. When PS hit the market in the 1950s, it did not automatically blast to selling billions of pounds annually. It took time to develop its sales just as PLA has grown steadily — with an average annual sales growth of 20 percent each year for NatureWorks.
To help build acceptance and boost technology going into PLA, Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks has hosted ITR as a bi-annual conference four times, inviting users, researchers, government experts and even competitors to talk about developments with the material.
Metabolix Inc. used the conference to introduce its bio-based PHA modifier for PLA users.
While Metabolix has its own bio-based plastics on the market, it makes sense to target development with NatureWorks' products as well, said Bob Engel, vice president for biopolymers. Wider acceptance and improved technology benefits all makers of bio-based materials.
The company's modifier — which it refers to as a “plastifier” rather than plasticizer — improves flexibility within PLA while allowing it to retain its 100 percent bio-based feedstock.
That improvement could, for instance, make it possible to produce a more flexible film that can still be composted, which would eliminate complaints about the “noisy” compostable bag for chips, Engle said.
Other uses target its potential for non-wovens in the medical industry.
Elsewhere, potential growth is coming from global retail giants who are increasingly looking to more sustainable packaging in the products they put on their shelves, and PLA fits right into that market, said Tony Kingsbury, president of consulting firm TKingsbury LLC and a former Dow Chemical Co. global sustainability leader.
Target Corp. recently announced a product and packaging sustainability program emphasizing recyclability and recycled or renewable content. Consumer products maker Procter & Gamble Co. has its own a sustainability target for packaging and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has set a goal of 0 percent of its packaging going to the landfill
“And if Wal-Mart says, ‘Here's what I'm going to do,' then it practically becomes global legislation,” he said.
To keep up with expected growth, NatureWorks currently has an engineering firm looking at sites for its second plant. While the company has said it prefers to locate that plant in Thailand, it is being courted by multiple Asian countries, said Steve Davies, marketing and public affairs director. Thailand's PTT Public Co. Ltd. owns a 50 percent stake in NatureWorks.
With Asia becoming NatureWorks second largest regional market, it makes sense to build there, Davies said, and the company is also expanding its planned feedstock sources to keep up with its regional growth.
“Wherever we build a plant, we're going to use the most abundant feedstock available locally,” Verbruggen said.
In Asia, that will likely begin with cassava, but other developments are under way to use the waste from sugar cane production as well as drawing from methane. Those new sources will help to counter complaints that PLA is taking corn out of the food production cycle to make plastic.
“Nobody seems to care if the oil that went into my polystyrene coffee cup was drilled in Nigeria in a sustainable way, though,” Verbruggen noted.
The variable sources of raw materials also will help the company remain cost competitive with traditional materials. Sugar currently sells on the global market for 17 to 20 cents per pound, he said. From a feedstock point of view, that sugar price means that PLA can compete against an oil-based feedstock selling at $50 per barrel, and oil currently is selling for far more than that.
The company may have taken ten years to reach its first billion pounds in sales, but Verbruggen said he expects that it will reach the 2 billion pound mark far faster.
“Getting to 2 billion pounds is going to take us a heck of a lot less time to get to than it took to get to a billion pounds, and we're going to get pretty quickly to a situation where growth is no longer depending on demand, it's going to start depending on supply.”