Taipei, Taiwan — The global movement to ban petroleum-based plastic straws has hit Taiwan's plastics machinery sector.
For 33 years, Taichung-based Jumbo Steel Co. Ltd.'s bread and butter has been machines that make polypropylene straws, cotton-bud sticks and lollipop sticks, making it particularly vulnerable to a downtown in demand for straws.
But now, the company is finding straw makers retooling: Interest in its 2-year-old line of machines for making straws from bioplastic polylactic acid is running high, said Vice General Manager Sandy Kuo, in an interview at the Taipei Plas trade show, held Aug. 15-19 in Taipei.
"This year, it's very hot," she said.
Jumbo has an installed base of 100 machines in the United States, with many used to supply big U.S. customers like McDonald's and Starbucks, which has announced plans to eliminate single-use traditional plastic straws by 2020.
Jumbo Steel is finding U.S. firms interested in retrofitting existing equipment.
"We have a customer from Seattle we met for dinner. We got an order to convert three of his PP machines into PLA machines," Kuo said.
PLA straws, which can be made from renewable sources such as corn starch, cassava chips or sugar cane, are permitted under Seattle's ban on petroleum-based plastic straws and utensils that went into effect in July.
Founded in 1985, Jumbo makes about 170 machines a year in its Taichung factory in central Taiwan. It has sold to its machines in 120 countries.
Jumbo also makes machines that make and package those seemingly omnipresent bendable Tetra Pak straws.
"We've had a couple of inquiries to change our Tetra Pak machines from PP to PLA," Kuo said.
Even though they represent but a fraction of plastic waste, PP straws have rapidly become a potent symbol of ocean pollution.
The Taiwanese Environmental Protection Administration has been especially aggressive.
Starting next year, food and beverage stores will not be able to provide plastic straws for in-store use, and in 2020, they will be banned from providing free straws. By 2025, fines will be levied for carryout use, and by 2030, they will be completely banned.
Plastic bags, beverage cups and utensils will be subject to similar rollout bans, with full bans slated for 2030.
One drawback industry officials point out: PLA costs three times as much as PP.
And PLA won't break down until it has been exposed to the air for six months.
"PLA isn't as environmentally friendly as many people think," said Zen-Wen Chiou, vice president of the Plastics Industry Development Center in Taichung, which runs Taiwan's only ISO-certified lab for PLA testing — a 180-day process.
As well, there can be recycling challenges, he said.
While PP retains 80 percent of its original strength after being recycled 20 times, PLA quickly degrades after being recycled two or three times, Chiou told Plastics News at the center's Taichung offices.
"PLA shouldn't be reground, but should be composted," Chiou said.
There are environmental costs to shipping PLA, too, he said, with Taiwan importing most of its PLA from the United States, Chiou said.
But at the show, Kuo was in a more buoyant mode, saying she was close to closing a deal on four PLA machines with Taiwanese buyers.
"The market is very good," she said.
The mood was decidedly pragmatic at the small booth of the Taiwan Plastics Industry Association, the island's trade organization for processors. They'll adapt to the decline in single-use plastics items, officials predicted.
"The domestic market for [one-use plastic items] isn't that big, so those manufacturers will export to other countries," Deputy Secretary General Hsu Chen said.