Consumers Push Plastics Industry to Find Bio-Based Solutions
Special to CNBC.com
NatureWorks, which only makes bio-based, biodegradable resins, says its strategy has always been to create a product that could be dropped into traditional processing. While that’s not possible yet, some of NatureWorks’ processors are beginning to sell enough PLA to reach the economies of scale necessary to make Ingeo more cost competitive, Davies said.
End of life
One of the biggest issues in the bioplastics industry is what happens to the products after they’re not needed. Biodegradable plastics can, of course, biodegrade, but usually only if composted properly. And as of right now, the U.S. doesn’t have an infrastructure to handle widespread municipal-level composting.
Another solution is to recycle the materials. Products made of Ingeo, for instance, can be returned to lactic acid, the ingredient created when plant sugars are fermented, and then made into a virgin polymer again. Currently, NatureWorks does this with waste at its plant.
Another solution is one both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are after: Creating a 100-percent, bio-based PET plastic bottle that can be recycled along with anything else made of plastic PET (the No. 1 plastic for those who recycle.)
“A lot of people look at environmental sustainability as disruptive technologies, a niche that can’t compete economically,” says Vitters. “We’ve come up with a solution that keeps the infrastructure in place.”
Coke has already created Plant Bottle, 30 percent of which is made from plants, and now has the technology to get the bottle to 100 percent — as does Pepsi — but the process of bringing the bottle to market remains complex.
“The challenge is getting scaled up, creating supply chains, getting the yield and efficiency so the economics get to where we think we can go forward,” says Rocco Papalia, senior vice president of advanced research at PepsiCo.
Coke hopes to break through these hurdles to have half of all its bottles and cans made from bio-plastics by 2015, and 100 percent by 2020, says Vitters of Coke.
“Innovation isn’t worth much until you can commercialize it and make it available to consumers,” he said.