Demand for bioplastics on the rise

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July 13th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Heinz have recently determined that plastic made from plants – not oil – makes sense both for the environment and for business. The growing demand has meant a boom in the bioplastic industry.

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At a processing plant near Blair, Nebraska, millions of small plastic pellets are blasted through long tubes into gleaming silos. The pellets are plastic resin – the raw material for everything from food containers to carpet.

For the last ten years, a company called NatureWorks has used corn, instead of oil or natural gas, to make bio-plastic. NatureWorks is partially owned by the ag giant, Cargill, and it makes more bioplastic right now than any company in the world.

To make plastic, corn starch is converted to lactic acid. Lactic acid molecules are linked together like a chain to make polylactic acid, or PLA, bioplastic. (Photo by Grant Gerlock)

The Director of Manufacturing, Steve Bray said, “ The capacity of the plant is 300 million pounds of polymer per year.” It’s not maxed out yet, “but we’re getting very close. You know in the first three years of operation we saw triple digit growth.”

Bray said things slowed down a bit during the recession.

“But even then we had growth. And now that the economy appears to be coming back we’re seeing very strong growth again.”

That growth is between 20 and 30 percent in the last year. That kind of growth is happening across the bioplastics industry. Even traditional plastic makers are investing in bioplastic.

A Cleveland based analyst with the market research firm, the Freedonia Group, Kent Furst said,
“In pounds or in dollars, it’s really growing very fast. Sort of at the rate where we expect the industry to double in size in the next three or four years.”

NatureWorks PLA Pellets

It’s impressive, but bioplastics are actually less than one percent of the plastic market. Still, Furst said bioplastics are beating even the most optimistic forecasts. So why are companies using more bioplastic now? Furst said consumer interest is part of it. More people are shopping for sustainability, but it’s the price of oil that is making it affordable for manufacturers.

“With the price of oil and natural gas in the early part of the last decade being so low, you didn’t see as much actual market interest in bioplastics,” Furst said. “But as the price of oil and natural gas rose in the later part of the decade, I think that’s when you saw how fast bioplastics could be competitive with conventional plastics on price.”

Bioplastics are not made equal, and that could start to cause some problems as they become more common.

The Executive of the Wisconsin Institute of Sustainable Technology, Paul Fowler said, “Bioplastic could mean that the material is biodegradable or it could mean that it’s biobased. Or it could mean that it’s both.”

Bioplastic is still fairly rare on store shelves, but big corporations like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson are planning to transition to more plant-based packages. (Photo by Grant Gerlock)

Fowler describes what seems like a growing bioplastics divide. Some plant-based containers are biodegradable but hard to recycle. Others are easy to recycle but do not biodegrade. For example, a Sun Chips bag is made from NatureWorks bioplastic called PLA. What sets PLA apart is that it’s completely biodegradable. It can be recycled, but not many recyclers handle PLA because it can contaminate the traditional recycling stream. A bottle of Odwalla juice on the other hand is made from sugar, but after you’re done with it, it’s no different from a bottle made from oil. It can be recycled almost anywhere in the country, but it does not biodegrade.

So, is composting better than recycling or are they both beneficial? Well, there is actually room for both, said Fowler. “If you consider the landscape for all the various products that are made from plastics then there’s a space for everyone within that landscape.”

Fowler said it does leave consumers with a lot to learn. So as more bioplastic shows up on grocery store shelves, sustainable minded consumers will need to be prepared to choose from new shades of green.

Editor’s note: This story is part of the NET News QUEST Nebraska project, a multimedia series exploring Nebraska science, environment and nature.

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