Growing the plant-based plastics industry: Cargill's NatureWorks

The Gunther Report

Growing the plant-based plastics industry: Cargill's NatureWorks

Back in the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1976 — wasn’t that a time! – Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner did an amusing routine about a product called Shimmer. The scene unfolds in a suburban kitchen where a husband (played by Ackroyd) and wife (played by Radner) are arguing about Shimmer: Is it a floor wax, or is it a dessert topping?

Turns out they’re both right, according to Shimmer’s spokesperson (played by Chevy Chase), who demonstrates the product’s dual functions by spraying it onto the floor and on some butterscotch pudding. Argument settled, Radner starts to mop with the product while Ackroyd looks on, cozy with his Shimmer-topped dessert.

I was reminded of Shimmer when I sat down recently to talk with Steve Davies, the director of public affairs and marketing at NatureWorks, a private company that aims to turn carbohydrates from plants into a wide array of products and materials.

The company grew out of a 1989 Cargill research project focused on finding ways to use carbohydrates as a base for plastics. Later, Cargill formed a joint venture with Dow Chemical to create NatureWorks. Its first manufacturing plant in Blair, Neb., opened in 2002. Dow eventually exited the venture. Last October, PTT Global Chemical, a Thai chemical company, invested $150 million in NatureWorks. The company said then that it would build a second manufacturing plant in Thailand.

According to the company, its work represents “one of the largest efforts every in green chemistry.”

Why green? Because the plant-based plastics and fibers made by NatureWorks replace oil-based products. “We live and breathe petro,” Steve says, reminding me that many carpets, bed sheets and fabrics (polyester, polypropylene) contain petroleum-based textiles. Plastic packaging, of course, is also oil-based.

Photo of cornfield provided by Nikolay Petkov via Shutterstock.

By contrast, NatureWorks’ industrial resin, which is sold under the brand name Ingeo, is now made from corn but could easily be made from other plants like sugar cane, or from agricultural waste or non-food plants. The manufacturing of Ingeo generates fewer greenhouse gases when compared to conventional plastics, and it cuts our dependence on oil, according to the company’s eco-profile. It also has the potential to be recycled or composted.

Like Shimmer, Ingeo is versatile. It’s made into yogurt cups, floor coverings, the exterior of a Canon copier and bags of Archer Farms chips, Target’s in-house brand. It’s also been turned into an Obama-themed dress from the Italian design house Gattinoni.

So how is the company doing? Well, it’s been a long road from concept to market for Cargill since it first started developing bioplastics over 20 years ago. Newman’s Own and Wild Oats Market, which were among the early adopters of NatureWorks’ bioplastic (then called PLA or polylactic acid), and used it in food packaging. But when the material turned up in plastic bottles, recyclers rebelled because it fouled up PET recycling streams. (See my 2006 story for Fortune.com, Why it's not easy being green). After Dow exited the joint venture, and NatureWorks subsequently discouraged use of PLA in bottles.

Despite such stumbles, Cargill stuck with NatureWorks–as a private company, it can afford to be patient. In recent years, the company has grown by 25 to 30 percent annually to become the world’s largest manufacturer of bioplastics.

“Everyone wants to get away from petro plastics either to tout a low carbon product or to reduce price volatility,” Davies says.

Well, not everyone. Conventional plastics still dominate the packaging business, and they are likely to do so unless oil prices rise.

But Ingeo has one big advantage over conventional plastics in food service ware (such as plates, cups, cutlery) because it decomposes in industrial composters. As a result, Ingeo provides a potential solution to the problem of what to do with food waste.

Right now, most food waste winds up in landfills; because it is usually mixed with petroleum-based plastics, it can’t be composted. But those restaurants and food-service operators that use Ingeo to make packaging, plates, flatware and glasses can compost their waste stream.

Increasingly, colleges and universities, some of which have their own composting facilities, as well as event venues, use compostable food service ware because they are aiming to eliminate waste and save money.  Municipalities such as San Francisco and Atlanta – along with major league sports teams such as the Portland TrailBlazers – are all driving demand for compostable food service ware as a way to divert  their waste from landfill.  (Compost is then sold to farmers or gardeners).

So as more industrial composting facilities are built, the potential market for Ingeo will grow.

Unlike Shimmer, which hasn’t been heard from since 1976.

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