As polylactic acid becomes an increasingly established material option, demand has soared. For almost two decades, NatureWorks has been the driving force behind the development of this market. Leah Ford, global marketing and communications manager for NatureWorks, explained to Sustainable Plastics how well its renewably-sourced material fits into today's circular ambitions, offering functionality and sustainability. "New applications are just starting to really grow," Ford said.
Q: Back in 2002, NatureWorks built the first commercial facility for PLA production in the world. Since then, there have not been many competitors entering this market. Why is that?
Ford: For a little over 15 years, NatureWorks was the sole global supplier of PLA at a commercial scale, and in the early years our capacity was enough to supply the market. Entry into this market requires significant investment and expertise in manufacturing PLA at scale, and this is still a relatively new process compared to petrochemical-based plastics that have been optimized for well over 60 years.
An integrated PLA complex is three distinct facilities: lactic acid fermentation, lactide monomer production, and PLA polymer production that need to be brought together for efficient, quality, economically viable manufacturing.
However, as demand has grown over the last few years, we have seen additional suppliers announce new PLA plants and one plant half the size of ours came online. Some may view this as competition, however, it is really a validation of the unprecedented market demand we see from plastics and fiber markets for all biomaterials including Ingeo. No one company can keep up with it all, and downstream supply chains often require multiple raw material suppliers for programs to scale. We are pleased that others see the opportunity to invest in this rapidly growing market, as we think it will accelerate growth for all the manufacturers in this space.
Q: Demand for PLA is nonetheless high. The few producers of PLA have been finding it difficult to supply enough of the material to meet demand. Does NatureWorks have any plans to expand its production capacity?
Ford: We recently announced that we are expanding our current manufacturing facility in Blair, Neb., which will increase the availability of the full Ingeo biomaterials portfolio by 10 percent. The expanded availability will support immediate growth in key markets, and it is only one of many additional capital improvements we are actively working on at our facility in Blair. At the same time, we are continuing to pursue a future second manufacturing site outside the U.S. to serve our growing international markets.
Q: What are the biggest technical challenges for converters who want to use PLA?
Ford: Challenges for converters really depend on the application, but the hurdles aren't as high as they were once perceived to be. Over the last 20 years, our applications development team has done a tremendous job developing the technical knowledge and guidance for converters to transform Ingeo into products through a range of manufacturing processes from extrusion to thermoforming to melt blowing.
Our challenges today are often tied to the newest products we are bringing to market or optimizing process conditions for faster, more efficient manufacturing. For example, at the last Chinaplas in 2019, we partnered with Sung An Machinery (SAM) to showcase new research in extrusion coating paper and paperboard with Ingeo where process optimizations can increase output and line speeds by 150-200 percent. In a recent webinar, we demonstrated how our new proprietary modeling system can simulate conversion processes to obtain a specific material distribution when manufacturing coffee capsules in order to accelerate the design process and reduce the need for costly iterations of molds.
Q: What materials can PLA replace and where would replacing these make sense?
Ford: Material replacement is entirely dependent on the application. We have found that Ingeo can substitute for many petrochemical plastics, but the best applications for Ingeo PLA are ones that take advantage of unique performance and sustainability attributes.
For example, in applications that are designed to hold food, compostability is a desired attribute and recommended by circular economy frameworks like the New Plastics Economy from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Compostable foodservice, paper coatings, bin liners, tea bags or coffee capsules made with Ingeo facilitate an easy way for consumers to direct their food waste to compost where it is a valuable nutrient and keep it out of incineration or landfills where it can generate methane. All of these applications were traditionally made with a combination of petrochemical plastics like polypropylene, polyethylene and PET but can now all be made with Ingeo.
In applications like masks, which are a critically needed product right now, Ingeo can be used to make a new spunbond fabric that makes a more significantly more breathable, reusable, N95 filtering-level mask. The use of Ingeo can also increase the efficiency of a spunbond line by over 30 percent, allowing for more masks to be manufactured. Using PP alone cannot achieve the same level of breathability or manufacturing efficiency, making this an interesting market for future Ingeo PLA growth.
Q: Is packaging still the main application for PLA? Are there other applications being worked on? What looks promising?
Ford: We have seen the market for Ingeo grow increasingly diversified over the last few years as new applications have come to market and are just starting to really grow. Here are a few examples:
Compostable coffee capsules and tea bags made with Ingeo are a great example where having a compostable packaging creates the opportunity not only to divert the packaging away from landfill, but the leftover organics can also easily be sent to compost where they deliver valuable nutrients to the final compost. Major brands in Europe like Covim and PG Tips are putting the new compostable coffee capsules and tea bags on store shelves now.
Most desktop-style 3D printers that you see already print with Ingeo because it's such an easy material to print with. Industrial-level users like it for the printability as well as properties like heat resistance and impact strength for industrial parts. Or in investment casting you again combine that printability with the clean-burning characteristics of Ingeo for a new approach to foundry applications.
From extrusion coatings to waterborne dispersions, we've been working on a slate of safe, new Ingeo biomaterials for coating paper and paperboard that goes into foodserviceware and food packaging applications. The result is paper cups and containers that can be manufactured more efficiently, have a smaller carbon footprint and are also both recyclable and compostable.
During the pandemic, our partner NWI (the Nonwovens Institute) was able to introduce a new technology for manufacturing spunbond nonwovens using Ingeo for use in N95 surgical masks. With this innovation, the masks are now reusable, more breathable and the rate of manufacturing is higher, meaning much-needed personal protective equipment is produced faster.
Q: What do you think is the best end-of-life solution for PLA? Why?
Ford: Just as there is no one waste system for every region or country, there is no best end-of-life solution for PLA. The application, its use and the raw material together determine the best path for an item especially when viewed through the circular economy lens. For example, packaging with food remnants should be directed to industrial composting where the food and the packaging can be processed together. Keeping food waste out of incineration and landfills is an important way to reduce methane emissions and recover the valuable nutrients from food for compost that can be applied to our increasingly dwindling soils.
In 3D printing, where Ingeo is used for monofilament, processes like mechanical recycling and chemical recycling are much more appropriate. In our recent webinar, we shared research that we've done to demonstrate the best processing guidelines for successfully mechanically recycling PLA into new monofilament. There are also many companies in the 3D market that mechanically recycle filament and parts into new filament.
Q: Are you looking at other feedstocks than corn, or will you be in the future?
Ford: Yes, our intent has long been to incorporate diverse, renewable feedstocks into our portfolio since our current manufacturing process does not require corn, only sugar. As we pursue our global expansion outside the U.S., we look to locate a facility in a region with a locally abundant, annually renewable feedstock and that is unlikely to be corn.
Also, through our participation in the BioRECO2VER consortium, we continue to pursue long-term research and development into technologies that will convert greenhouse gases directly to lactic acid.
While those longer-term projects develop, we've been working to bring certified sustainable agricultural practices into use for our current feedstocks. Using the third-party certification, ISCC PLUS, we can certify the use of best practices that provide for both environmental and social sustainability on the farms that supply corn for our manufacturing. We are targeting certification of 100 percent of our feedstock use by the end of crop year 2020, and recently reported that at the end of 2019 we officially certified 64 percent of the feedstocks currently in use.
Q: Why has NatureWorks chosen to support the Green Sports Alliance? Why is that so important?
Ford: NatureWorks has been a proud supporter of the Green Sports Alliance since 2010 when we joined them at their first summit in Portland, Ore. The motto of the GSA has been "Leveraging the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play." We saw early on that by working the GSA, we could leverage the power of sports and their closed-loop venues to demonstrate how zero waste and organics recycling could be successfully executed, economically beneficial and contribute to more sustainable communities.
As sports venues looked for ways to lower waste costs and were spurred on by fans to adopt more sustainable practices, we saw food waste diversion facilitated by compostable foodserviceware as a meaningful opportunity. Working with sports venues through the GSA led to the growth of industrial composting infrastructure in certain areas. In Minneapolis, venues like Target Field and U.S. Bank Stadium were able to take advantage of industrial composting infrastructure that was already in place. In Atlanta, however, Mercedes-Benz Stadium sought to incorporate organics collection into their operations, which provided the impetus for a local industrial composter to open. At Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, their growing organics recycling collection is now part of the regenerative agriculture farm Pocono Organics that they opened across the street.
Now after 10 years of partnership, we see an incredible acceleration in the number of stadiums at both the collegiate and professional level adopting organics recycling programs and compostable foodserviceware.
Q: How has the pandemic affected the company? Have you gained new business? Lost business?
Ford: The pandemic was certainly an extraordinary unplanned global event which has created an enormous amount of uncertainty and rapid change to some of the markets and customers that we serve.
For us at NatureWorks, the health and safety of our employees and their families was foremost in our minds. Also, as a part of the critical essential infrastructure, we took seriously our responsibility to deliver our biomaterials on time as promised to the global supply chains that rely on them.
After we were able to secure the safety of our employees and the continuity of our manufacturing, we turned our focus to how our customers' needs and the markets are evolving. Overall, we have not experienced reduced demand for Ingeo from the market.
What we have seen in the course of the pandemic is the convergence of the environmental concerns around plastics with a heightened need for products that ensure public safety and hygiene. In particular, we've seen increased demand for single-use items made from biomaterials because they are seen to provide benefits for hygiene and safety as well as sustainability.
Since March, we have collaborated with our downstream industry partners in 3D printing and nonwovens to address the shortage of critical personal protective equipment. The development and scaling of new Ingeo-based spunbond nonwoven technology for more breathable, reusable N95 surgical masks is one of the promising new markets accelerated in the course of the pandemic.
Q: Where will the focus of the company be in five years?
Ford: In five years, the focus for NatureWorks will be on continued global expansion, new applications and new Ingeo grades tailored for those applications. We see significant long-term opportunity in the market for biomaterials like Ingeo, and we intend to remain at the forefront of that growth.