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Got plants? Bio-based shoes, lingerie, auto parts and more

From corn shoes manufactured by Reebok to lingerie fabric Naia made by Eastman to all sorts of packaging and electronics, bio-based, compostable products are reaching market.

For all the hope of ridding our energy and transportation systems of petroleum dependence, there’s also the pesky little problem that so many materials that industry and consumers use day-to-day are made from petroleum: plastics; nylons; and fiberglass.

Lately, bio-based alternatives have begun making inroads. Now, businesses can buy durable plastic-like industrial materials without petroleum-based polymers. And consumers can — and do — buy grocery bags, cups, forks and spoons that act like plastic but are biodegradable and compostable. They can even buy soft, washable fabrics that seem like nylon but are made of plants and biodegrade. Even shoemakers are walking in this direction: Adidas AG's Reebok unit is manufacturing a corn-based sneaker for sale later this year.

Moreover, manufacturers say they are introducing these products in response to market demand, so a flurry of bio-based, compostable and biodegradable products is making its way from research and development labs to market.

What that means to the environment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture BioPreferred Program, is saving 6.8 million barrels of oil from use and avoiding 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.The USDA program says there are 2,700 certified bio-based products on the market — everything from Tide purclean detergent to Green Depot's Bamboo plywood. 

These products don't compromise. Reebok has begun manufacturing a shoe made from non-food source corn stalks and hopes to begin selling the shoes by fall.

"With product development, we’re using materials that grow and can be replenished rather than the petroleum-based materials commonly used today," said Bill McInnis, head of Reebok Future, in a statement.

Yet it is tailored to meet the same demands athletes have of other Reebok shoes. "When the product hits the market, we know our consumers don’t want to sacrifice how sneakers look and perform," McInnis said.

Another plant-based consumer item hitting the market is lingerie made with Naia, a cellulosic yarn Eastman Chemical manufactured for use in lingerie and athletic apparel that's derived from sustainably managed and certified forests. This plant-based material behaves like nylon as a flexible, satiny-feeling and washable fabric but it is also "breathable," said Glenda Eilo, director of strategic marketing and innovation at Eastman.

Consumer demand for that "breathable" quality made Eastman pursue manufacturing of Naia in product line quantities.

"In bio-based we did a lot of work around eight years ago. We have that leg as our technology platform and we made a huge investment," Eilo said. "But that is not the singular driver in innovation. Has to be coupled with consumer desire."

Eastman, as a corporation, set a strategy six years ago that two-thirds of new product revenue would come from "sustainable advantaged" materials and has focused much of its innovation around that goal. So it has a stock of basic materials that answer the sustainability criteria.

The product decision is 'how to leverage that world-class technology with how do we meet the needs of the marketplace.'

It has developed, Eilo said, numerous "world-class tech platforms" through its chemistry. One is cellulose wood products, which it manufactures for use in coatings, personal care products, electronics, fashion and consumer electronics. The product decision is "how to leverage that world-class technology with how do we meet the needs of the marketplace."

Hers is not the only chemical company blazing a trail into bio-based materials. Indeed, many major chemical companies are involved.

BASF sells a compostable polymer it calls ecoflex as well as a bio-based and largely biodegradable material it calls ecovio.

Lars Liebscher, product manager for those lines, said ecoflex and ecovio are being sold into a range of consumer and industrial uses — most visibly in the compostable take-out food dishes, forks and cups that increasing numbers of restaurants use. But the materials also are sold to makers of medical equipment, toys, industrial sealants and electronics.

"The biomass that is the breakthrough" in these materials came about through years of R&D efforts. The breakthrough, Liebscher said, is the use of enzymes at the molecular level to bind to a chain of monomer molecules that otherwise would be slow to biodegrade. The enzyme causes them to biodegrade "in a couple of weeks."

That changed the biodegradable nature of the materials, breaking it into basic elements found in nature, he said.

Liebscher said ecoflex shows up on the market in everything from organic waste bags that people use in their kitchens to industrial packaging and agricultural equipment. Another fairly new use is in agriculture films used to coat fields for crop protection as a replacement for chemical pesticides.

"Packaging is an enormous market for us," he said, citing both at the retail level and the wholesale level.

So how favorable is the packaging market?  

Checking in with the Future Market Insights research firm, it appears that compostable cups are the fastest growing segment of the $12 billion-a-year disposable cup industry. "Disposable cups made from bioplastics or other such materials is predicted to garner surplus demand in the years to come," the research firm said.

The promising prospects of the bioplastics/biodegradable materials market led DuPont to enter a joint venture with Tate & Lyle Bioproducts and now DuPont Tate & Lyle boasts plant-based feedstocks for a range of markets and products — including Reebok's compostable sneakers.

DuPont Tate &  Lyle invented a bio-based and biodegradable material it calls Susterra propanediol, a polymer without any petroleum ingredients. This industrial-strength product is being used in a range of products including, ironically, in automobiles. Reebok corn + cotton footwear manufacturing also uses Susterra feedstock for soles.

As consumer demand grows for sustainable and non-fossil fuel derived products, the number of products hitting the market keeps growing and sales are keeping pace.

According to a 2016 Economic Impact Analysis of the U.S. Biobased Products Industry (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bio-based products generated $127 bilion in direct sales plus $266 billion in "spillover" sales in 2014. 

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