|To: richardred who wrote (18)||11/23/2006 8:51:30 AM|
|From: Sam Citron|
|If PLA is backyard compostable, that suggests to me that it should be placed with ordinary trash and dumped in a landfill, rather than being seperated out and placed with the PET recyclables.|
A friend of mine works at Gap, San Francisco, where I am told they use PLA cutlery and other material in the employee cafeteria. I may have to ask her to get me a spoon for a backyard recycling experiment in my compost pile, which is a vermiculture breeding lab at the moment. ;-)
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|To: richardred who wrote (18)||11/29/2006 11:24:12 AM|
|Wellman Introduces Titanium PET Resins|
Wednesday November 29, 8:20 am ET
SHREWSBURY, N.J.--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Wellman, Inc. (NYSE: WLM - News), the largest producer of PET resins in the U.S., announces the introduction of its new PermaClearTi ® packaging resin at PET Strategies in Atlanta. This titanium based, antimony-free product is specifically designed for the carbonated soft drink industry. The new product compliments Wellman's ThermaClearTi®, the premier titanium based resin for hot fill packaging.
Wellman researchers focused on exploiting the polymer properties and performance advantages offered by titanium catalyst. This created a line of patented resins, which are unlocking the potential of PET. Titanium provides significant bottle enhancement opportunities over traditional antimony catalyst systems, which have been the market standard.
According to Michael Dewsbury, Vice President of U.S. PET Resins, "Titanium based PET resins will become the new industry standard as it provides significant bottle enhancement opportunities to our customers over traditional antimony catalyst systems."
Jim Bruening, Wellman's Director of PET Resins Research and Development stated, "Titanium based PET resin is Wellman's strategic technology platform and we believe the industry will follow, making titanium the catalyst of choice. Using PermaClearTi ® and ThermaClearTi® titanium resins will allow our customers to raise filling temperatures, reduce AA, reduce injection cycle times by up to 10%, and provide light weighting opportunities, while increasing clarity"
Wellman commercially produces these patented titanium based PET resins at its world scale plants in Florence, South Carolina and Pearl River, Mississippi.
Wellman, Inc. manufactures and markets high-quality polyester products, including PermaClear® brand PET (polyethylene terephthalate) packaging resins and Fortrel® brand polyester fibers.
ThermaClearTi ® and PermaClearTi ® are registered trademarks of Wellman, Inc.
Statements contained in this release that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements made pursuant to the safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. In addition, words such as "believes," "expects," "anticipates," and similar expressions are intended to identify forward-looking statements. These statements are made as of the date hereof based upon current expectations, and we undertake no obligation to update the information contained herein. These forward-looking statements involve certain risks and uncertainties, including, but not limited to: reduced raw material margins; availability and cost of raw materials; reduced sales volumes; increase in costs; polyester staple fiber, textile and PET resin imports; the actions of our competitors; the financial condition of our customers; availability of financing, changes in financial markets, interest rates, credit ratings, tax risks; environmental risks and foreign currency exchange rates; regulatory changes; U.S., European, Asian and global economic conditions; prices and volumes of PET resin imports; work stoppages; levels of production capacity and profitable operations of assets; prices of competing products; natural disasters and acts of terrorism; and maintaining the operations of our existing production facilities. Actual results may differ materially from those expressed herein. Results of operations in any past period should not be considered indicative of results to be expected in future periods. Fluctuations in operating results may result in fluctuations in the price of our common stock. For a more complete description of the prominent risks and uncertainties inherent in our business, see our Form 10-K/A for the year ended December 31, 2005.
Investor Relations Officer
Source: Wellman, Inc.
|RecommendKeepReplyMark as Last Read|
|From: richardred||11/30/2006 8:40:06 AM|
|Sonoco Products to Buy Clear Pack|
Thursday November 30, 8:36 am ET
Sonoco Products to Acquire Clear Pack to Expand Rigid Plastic Container Operations
HARTSVILLE, S.C. (AP) -- Sonoco Products Co., an industrial and consumer packaging company, Thursday said it agreed to acquire Clear Pack Co., a privately held maker of extruded plastic materials and containers, for undisclosed terms.
Clear Pack, with annual sales of about $45 million, operates a 240,000-square-foot manufacturing and warehouse facility in Franklin Park, Ill. It produces plastic containers for several consumer product and food service companies, including packaging for single-serve condiments and fresh produce.
"This strategic acquisition significantly expands Sonoco's rigid plastic capabilities," said Charles Sullivan, executive vice president, in a statement.
The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter, pending regulatory approval, and is expected to add slightly to earnings in 2007.
Sonoco Products has about $3.5 billion in annual sales.
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|From: richardred||12/4/2006 10:30:04 AM|
|12/04 08:47 DJ Dow Chem To End Distribution Pact With Ashland Unit >ASH|
DOW JONES NEWSWIRES
Ashland Inc. (ASH) said Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) plans to terminate, on March 1, its agreement with the company's Ashland Distribution unit for the distribution of Dow plastics in North America.
The Covington, Ky., chemical company said Monday that fiscal 2006 purchases under the agreement totaled $170 million, or about 5% of Ashland Distribution's materials purchases. Ashland Distribution also has a plastics distribution contract with Dow in Europe, under which it bought $60 million of plastics in fiscal 2006, which the company said "could at some point be impacted."
Ashland said it plans to "agressively pursue retention" of the customers affected by Dow's decision, with the support of its plastics manufacturer partners.
Ashland's shares closed Friday down 38 cents at $67.99, after reaching a 52- week high of $68.70 earlier in the session.
-Tom Rojas; 201-938-5400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
Copyright (c) 2006 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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|From: richardred||12/4/2006 10:38:58 AM|
|New range of plastics products for packaging|
A British producer of custom made extruded sheet and plastics films introduces a new range of products for the packaging industry.
At Emballage 2006 in Paris through a number of new product introductions, Rob Harris, the Managing Director of VitasheetGroup, and his team demonstrated their commitment, “We want to be our customer’s first choice of supply”.
A British Vita company, VitasheetGroup is Europe’s largest producer of custom made extruded sheet and films in an extensive range of polymers, including styrenics (PS, HIPS), ABS, polyolefins (PP, PE), polyester (APET, PETG), agropolymers and many specialist compounds and alloys
Find Information and Suppliers of plastics films.
• ViPrint* Nature, a PP sheet enhanced with natural wood fillers, adds a new dimension to luxury carton applications giving the designer an extended choice of products to meet the latest market trends.
• ViForm* Clear BLS 434, a PET G/A/G is a new and cost effective solution that broadens the VitasheetGroup PET product range, offering the best of PETG and APET including excellent sealability.
• ViForm* Bio 9100, (made with NatureWorks** PLA) white sheet for printing with improved die cutting characteristics. This bio-degradable product can be used in a wide range of applications from luxury cartons to horticulture.
• ViForm* Decor laminates, a range of new and fashionable finishes for luxury packaging differentiation.
ViForm™ Decor laminates finishes for luxury packaging differentiation
ViForm* Decor laminates, a range of new and fashionable finishes for luxury packaging differentiation. Click Go for High resolution image. photo: VitasheetGroup
VitasheetGroup is dedicated to leadership of the European thermoplastic sheet business and being number one in product development, service and environmentally friendly solutions and will open a new and unified European Research and Development Centre located at its Metzeler site in Julich near Dusseldorf, Germany, before the end of this year.
Ease of access to a versatile product range
Since the consolidation of the 13 businesses of British Vita PLC, VitasheetGroup has focused on providing its customers with easy access to a versatile range of products that have the breadth and flexibility to cover a wide range of industry segments and applications.
Emballage 2006 provides the perfect platform to demonstrate its comprehensive range of packaging products that are designed to meet the needs of the Medical, Luxury, Food, General purpose, Printing and Material Handling markets.
This prestigious exhibition is a unique occasion for all of its customers to acquaint themselves with not only the new introductions, but also exciting products, like Conductive PS sheet for electronic packaging and an extensive range of printable PS sheet. These products, formerly available from companies known as; Royalite, Metzeler Plastics, Iroplast, Esbjerg Thermoplast, Doeflex, Gaillon and Carolex, are now easily accessible from the consolidated VitasheetGroup.
Drawing on its European-wide market network, VitasheetGroup, the leader in thermoplastic sheet and film products, is able to support customers with a comprehensive and in-depth working knowledge of materials, processes and end-use applications with the additional benefits of rapid local response, backed by extensive and detailed support from across the region.
* ViPrint and ViForm are trademarks of VitasheetGroup Ltd.
** NatureWorks is a registered trademark of NatureWorks llc.
Find information about VitasheetGroup.
Read a recent press release about - At the NanoSolutions trade fair Baytubes operations to showcase a cost effective production process that improves the properties of plastics.
|RecommendKeepReplyMark as Last Read|
|From: richardred||12/26/2006 7:30:01 PM|
|California cities say goodbye to styrofoam containers|
By Mary Anne Ostrom
San Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Take-out junkies beware. Hoping to get the plastic out of fast food, San Francisco and Oakland are about to ban food establishments from using styrofoam.
The cities say it's not a war on fast-food joints, but a common sense step to stem plastics pollution at a time when new biodegradable alternatives are coming to market.
Polystyrene foam, better known as styrofoam, is just the start. In Oakland and San Francisco, the new laws not only ban the foam but also encourage food establishments to reduce their use of all plastic in favor of materials that are biodegradable or can be composted, such as SpudWare, the trademark for cutlery made of potato-starch.
Banning polystyrene has been on the political agenda for years. Berkeley led the nation with the first such ban more than a generation ago. Now, Oakland will enact a ban Jan 1., followed by San Francisco on June 1. San Jose environmental officials are closely watching what other cities are doing. And other cities, including Emeryville, Livermore and Capitola, have shown an interest in bans, too, all in the name of reducing plastic waste in landfills and the environment.
"Plastics are again high-profile," said Lanny Clavecilla, a spokesman for California's Integrated Waste Management Board. "You're seeing more attention in the area of how big a problem plastic is in pollution."
Paper and cardboard make it under the new rules, as do those traditional Chinese take-out boxes. But new plant-based products made of sugar cane, bamboo and rice pulp and other organic materials, dubbed bio-plastics, are even more environmentally friendly, they say.
Already the Oakland A's use biodegradable beverage cups, and at the University of California-Berkeley, dorm residents do take-out in bamboo products. Yahoo and the NUMMI car plant are among a growing number of local companies whose cafeterias use "bio-plastic" utensils, bowls and plates made from fermented corn or potato starch mixed with soy oil, or bagasse, a fibrous waste left over from processing sugar cane.
Food sellers who don't comply with the new laws could face fines as high as $250 in San Francisco and $500 in Oakland.
By encouraging alternatives to polystyrene, a growing number of California cities hope to reduce the amount of slowly degrading plastics in landfills. San Jose, Palo Alto and Gilroy years ago weighed bans. Instead, they opted to increase plastics recycling. But if San Jose develops a zero-waste policy, as other California cities are now doing, San Jose could consider a polystyrene ban, too, said Lindsey Wolf of the city's environmental services department.
Polystyrene foam containers and cups continue to be a major source of litter, say local environmental groups.
Small-restaurant owners who cater to take-out customers say alternatives - such as plant-based packaging or even paper cups - don't work as well and are considerably more expensive. Oakland officials estimate using polystyrene alternatives could add 30 cents to the cost of a meal.
"The customers might like it, but it costs more. It's not business-friendly," Adam Kwan, a manager at San Francisco Chinatown's Yee's Restaurant, said as his workers prepared lunch orders of duck and chicken in polystyrene foam containers.
But Enrique Arrieta, a tourist from Peru, called it "an excellent idea," as he ate his sweet-and-sour chicken lunch from such a container. "I don't like eating from this stuff. It doesn't feel natural."
The industry-backed Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group says polystyrene foam can be recycled, though it's costly, and polystyrene producers are involved in anti-litter campaigns to address governments' concerns. Group director Mike Levy says consider "that you have to put on two java sleeves or a second cup" to hold hot coffee in a paper cup. He argues, that's hardly reducing trash.
In a December 2004 report to the California state Legislature, the state's Integrated Waste Management Board concluded that the state needed a more comprehensive approach to managing all plastic waste, not just polystyrene foam. "While bans may help solve immediate problems, they are generally not an effective long-term solution," the report said. The current board has no position on the recent city bans.
With an estimated 3,400 restaurants in San Francisco alone, some supporters say the new big-city bans will put a spotlight on the Bay Area and could help a fledgling industry of "green" food packaging. Most such packaging is now imported from Asia, where its use is commonplace.
Oakland already is working with Bay Area restaurant suppliers to stock bio-based alternatives and as demand increases, they predict prices will fall.
"Many Bay Area companies want to be green," said Allen King, whose Excellent Packaging & Supply markets SpudWare and other environmentally sensitive products to food-service companies. "The municipal bans will have a bigger impact."
WEIGHING PROS, CONS
The battle to ban polystyrene food containers (better known as styrofoam) in the Bay Area spans two decades. Berkeley was the first in the nation, in 1990. Oakland will institute its ban Jan 1. San Francisco follows June 1. Officials in San Jose and other Santa Clara County cities have considered bans over the years, but instead backed recycling alternatives.
_Polystyrene food packaging represents about 15 percent of the litter in the California storm-drain system.
_It takes several decades to 100 years to deteriorate in the environment or landfill. The recycling rate for such packaging in California was 0.2 percent in 2001.
_Biodegradable alternatives are being developed.
_The California Integrated Waste Management Board in 2004 stated that while bans "may help solve immediate problems, they are generally not an effective long-term solution" and called for a comprehensive approach to plastics pollution.
_Alternatives are more expensive; Oakland officials estimate the ban will add 30 cents to the cost of a take-out meal.
_Some restaurant owners say it's the cheapest and best product to keep food hot, which can help avoid bacteria growth.
Sources: Mercury News reporting; the California Integrated Waste Management Board
DOING YOUR PART
_Lug your own mug when getting beverages to go. Many popular Bay Area coffeehouses already use paper in place of styrofoam. Regardless, ask for a discount. You're saving them on garbage or dishwashing costs.
_If you take food home, bring along your own Tupperware-style container. You've got a better chance of avoiding spills, too.
_Look for restaurants and take-out joints that use easy-to-recycle packaging.
_Ask your favorite restaurants to consider using containers that are biodegradable or can be composted.
_If you are heading straight home to eat, decline the plastic flatware, napkins and chopsticks if you've got a supply in the kitchen.
_For more tips, go to Californians Against Waste at cawrecycles.org or bringyourown.org.
© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
Visit MercuryNews.com, the World Wide Web site of the Mercury News, at mercurynews.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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|From: richardred||3/19/2007 12:00:08 AM|
|Metabolix awaits FDA approval, plans brand initiative|
By Tony Deligio
Orlando, FL — Currently qualifying 50 applications with 30 different companies, biobased material supplier Metabolix (Cambridge, MA) is quickly ramping up for the opening of its Clinton, IA production facility in the third or fourth quarter 2008 (for an initial report on Metabolix, see March 16, 2006 e-Weekly). During presentations at the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE; Brookfield, CT) Global Plastics Environmental Conference (GPEC; March 6-7, Orlando), Kristin Taylor, Metabolix business development manager, said that in addition to injection molding, cast sheet for thermoforming, and paper coating, Metabolix is working to commercialize PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates) grades for blown, cast, and oriented films as well as foams. The plant, which is a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland, will have an initial production capacity of 110 million lb, with room to expand four times beyond that.
Taylor said the company currently supplies development samples from a 15,000 lb/month pilot plant, with that line doubling to 30,000 lb/month in April. This time last year, the company was quoting a tentative price of $1.20/lb, but it’s now estimating $2 to $3/lb costs, given increases in the price of ethanol, which is introduced to the microbials that create the PHA, and the decision to run the plant on wind energy and the burning of biomass, promoting a greener footprint than the original coal-fired plans, if higher costs.
April will be a busy month for the company, with plans to release results of a third-party lifecycle analysis and the launch of a brand name and product logo, according to Taylor. As of now, the material meets U.S. (ASTM D64001) and European (EN 13432) composting standards, with Taylor saying it biodegrades faster than polylactic acid (PLA) in an anaerobic landfill environment. Metabolix expects to be granted food-contact approval in the fourth quarter of 2007. The company currently has 320 approved and 100 pending patents for the material, which was originally conceived 20 years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Taylor says PHA is a natural polyester that isn’t as clear as PLA, but has a heat-deflection temperature above 100°C, which is key for hot beverage packaging and other applications. Currently, the material is manufactured by feeding microbes corn sugar, which prompts them to generate the polymer and store it as we store fat. By dry weight, 90% of the end product is PHA plastic, and the other 10% are microbes that are burned off to power production, along with corn stalks and other biomass. The eventual goal is to grow the plastic directly in switchgrass. Metabolix is already doing this in a greenhouse in Cambridge, but commercial-scale production of this type is still four to eight years out, according to Taylor, with this process promising to lower the material costs.
When two other papers fell through, Taylor filled her allotted slot and two more to a standing-room-only crowd at the Florida Conference Center. Due to the response, she was asked to offer the paper again later in the day, when a break had originally been scheduled, once again to an overflow crowd.—firstname.lastname@example.org
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|From: richardred||4/7/2007 10:09:24 AM|
|Design Trends: Sustainability|
PLA bottle is used for a Noble cause
Demonstrating its fresh thinking, Blue Lake Citrus Products, LLC, Winter Haven, FL, has become the first company to offer all-natural and organic juice beverages in bottles made from NatureWorks(R) PLA polylactide resin, a biodegradable, compostable polymer derived from renewable resources. Explains Blue Lake president Wade J. Groetsch, the company selected the bio-based resin from NatureWorks LLC (www.natureworksllc.com) for the material's eco-friendly advantages. "We are always researching new ways to reduce packaging waste and energy in the production of packaging products such as our new bottle," he says.
Since last September, Blue Lake has offered its lines of Noble All Natural and Noble Organics premium juices in a clear, 32-oz PLA bottle molded by Consolidated Container Corp. (www.cccllc.com) using an existing, custom mold. Dubbed the "E bottle" by Blue Lake, the package provides a clarity comparable to the company's previous polyethylene terephthalate bottle, as well as a sufficient oxygen barrier for the products' 60-day shelf life. Noble juices are cold-packed, so PLA's lower melt index is not an issue during filling. "However, we do have to control the temperature of the transportation and warehousing of bottles," Groetsch relates.
Based on its 2006 sales, Blue Lake estimates that the switch to PLA will save the fossil-fuel equivalent of burning 114,000 gal of gasoline and will save greenhouse-gas emissions equivalent to driving a car more than 2.7 million miles in the U.S
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|To: richardred who wrote (24)||4/19/2007 1:23:27 PM|
|From: Sam Citron|
|A Bio-Plastics Revival Makes Gains at Cargill [WSJ]|
High Oil Prices Drive Interest in Soy, Corn;
Wal-Mart Wants In
By SCOTT KILMAN
April 19, 2007; Page A1
BLAIR, Neb. -- The huge Cargill Inc. biorefinery here turns 60 million bushels of corn a year into a torrent of sweeteners and ethanol.
Now the giant facility -- whose overhead pipes snake between 50-foot-tall tanks and metal buildings over a square mile -- is also cranking out what could be the next big thing in farming: a new generation of renewable chemicals.
Although most petroleum-based chemicals remain substantially cheaper, high oil prices have bolstered the economic rationale for making plastics, foam and lubricants from plants grown in the Midwest.
Soybeans and corn are showing up in carpets, disposable cups, salad bags, AstroTurf, candles, lipstick, socks, surfboards, cooling fluid in utility transformers, and even the body panels of Deere & Co. harvesting combines. There has also been growing demand from retail giants like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., newly sensitive to environmental pressure, for packaging made from renewable plastic.
FARM BELT CATALYST
[Farm Belt Catalyst]
What's Happening: With oil prices so high, grain-processing giant Cargill and others are turning to corn and soybeans for chemicals.
The Problem: Although technology has improved since bio-plastics flopped in the 1980s, petro-plastics are still cheaper, and any success would tax food supplies.
What's Ahead: With a growing focus on bio-products, consumers could soon see 'vegetarian' car seats, sofas and surfboards.
Cargill, the closely held Minneapolis food ingredients giant, has visions of making billions of pounds of so-called renewable chemicals annually from corn and soybeans. "We have the will to take on the chemical companies on their own turf," says Yusuf Wazirzada, the manager of Cargill's soy-based urethane polyols business.
The diversion of yet more farm products toward the energy and industrial sectors could stretch demand and send commodity prices sky high. Other problems remain: For many manufacturers, adjusting equipment to use renewable chemicals made by Cargill and others is cost-prohibitive.
Still, the use of farm products to replace plastics and other goods is generating buzz in farm circles, where many players are eager to diversify beyond food and ethanol. At the same time, there appear to be market reasons for a move to corn-based chemicals, especially as a hedge against uncertainties in the oil market.
Hickory Springs Manufacturing Co. is replacing some of the petrochemicals it uses to manufacture polyurethane foam with a Cargill soybean compound.
The Hickory, N.C., foam maker turned to Cargill after its chemicals suppliers boosted prices about 50% in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "We now realize that in everyday life we have to not depend on petrochemicals," says Bobby W. Bush, a Hickory Springs vice president.
[A sofa stuffed with soy-foam]
A sofa stuffed with soy-foam
Retailer Crate & Barrel is beginning to sell a sofa stuffed with Hickory Springs' foam. The Lockport sofa, which is aimed at "green" consumers, has a prize location on its store floors.
Ford Motor Co., in Dearborn, Mich., is considering using soy-containing foam in car seats, armrests and headrests. Now that its scientists have figured out how to use ultraviolet light to eliminate a rancid odor from the foam, the auto maker's appetite for the crop could potentially reach hundreds of thousands of bushels annually.
Battelle, a nonprofit research organization based in Columbus, Ohio, is one of several outfits working on 100% crop-based polyurethane foam. This, potentially, could be a cheap enough alternative to the petro-based material to make a big difference to auto makers, which put 30 pounds of foam into each vehicle they make.
Scientists have long known how to make chemicals from plants. Before the oil age, manufacturers mined carbon and hydrogen in plants to produce all sorts of industrial products. Decades before soybean became a ubiquitous food, it was used to make glue and paint. Celluloid, an early plastic, came from cotton. The diesel engine first ran on vegetable oil.
By the mid-1930s, Henry Ford owned 12,000 acres of farmland with the idea of mass-producing car bodies with soybeans. World War II derailed that dream. In the 1980s, efforts to cash in on the environmental movement with corn-based biodegradable plastics flopped. The materials were costly, melted easily, let the fizz out of carbonated beverages and didn't biodegrade as promised.
Technological breakthroughs, however, are making a biochemicals renaissance possible. The biodegradable pitch has been dropped: The claim now is the ability to decompose harmlessly in a matter of months in an industrial composting operation. New chemistry, and the genetic modification of crop-eating micro-organisms to make industrial products, are driving down costs and increasing the range of bio-materials.
Although Cargill is hawking its corn-derived plastic as the first new plastic category since the 1970s, the fledgling product is but a tiny part of its business, and will be so for the foreseeable future. Yet the price of oil is high enough that more manufacturers see their dependence on petrochemicals as a liability.
America is beholden to fossil fuel for everything from computers and Barbie dolls to beer cups and diapers. About 10% of petroleum is used to make chemicals.
Renewable chemicals have many of the political attractions of renewable fuel. They reduce dependence on foreign oil, create jobs in the Farm Belt, and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions -- all without the government subsidies heaped upon ethanol.
At today's prices, a $3.25 bushel of corn can generate $15 worth of bio-plastic -- enough to supply a deli with a day's worth of take-out salad containers -- allowing for much greater profit margins than would come from turning the corn into food ingredients or livestock feed.
The economics of making chemicals from carbohydrates instead of hydrocarbons is also blurring boundaries between industries. Grain-processing companies are making chemicals and chemical companies are processing grain. "If I were Archer-Daniels-Midland or Cargill, I'd be looking at the same areas," says Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman and CEO of DuPont Co., which is itself moving into crop-derived chemicals.
The Wilmington, Del., chemicals giant opened a plant in Loudon, Tenn., in November with British sugar giant Tate & Lyle PLC that makes a monomer -- a building block for plastics -- from corn. The monomer, produced by genetically modified yeast with an appetite for corn sugar, can be used to make everything from textile fiber to bottles.
Grain-processor ADM, long the nation's biggest ethanol producer, owns a 4% stake in Metabolix Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., firm that has genetically modified a corn-eating strain of E. coli bacteria to make a polymer, PHA. A joint venture of the companies is building a facility near Clinton, Iowa, with the capacity to make 110 million pounds of PHA annually from ADM corn.
While the fledgling biochemicals market is meager, some adherents figure it could be a $150 billion industry if optimistic projections -- that they will replace 10% of the petroleum used to make chemicals globally by 2020 -- pan out. Today, less than 2% of U.S. chemicals come from crops. "Clearly, momentum is building," says Bhima R. Vijayendran, a chemist working on making polymers from crops at Battelle.
Crop supply remains a concern. The oil industry is so large that getting even a small slice of its business could consume a big share of U.S. crops. It's a lesson learned from the ethanol industry, which is using 20% of last year's corn harvest to produce ethanol equal to about 3% of the U.S. gasoline supply. The ethanol industry's appetite for corn has inflated the price of the nation's largest crop by roughly 50% over the past 12 months.
Recently, furniture makers, as well as auto parts rivals Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., have touted their ability to make environmentally friendly products with soybeans. To make soy-foam attractive, though, scientists are trying to make it as springy as its petro-based alternative.
This is not the first time that agriculture has looked for a better living through chemistry. In the 1930s, with the farm sector sinking under the weight of commodity gluts, intellectuals and business leaders saw a solution in new uses for surplus crops.
The "chemurgy" movement drew Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and William J. Hale, a major Dow Chemical shareholder. Research was funded with income from German chemical patents that had been seized by the U.S. government as reparations for World War I. Gas stations began carrying ethanol and the movement made it onto the big screen in the 1946 movie "It's a Wonderful Life." George Bailey's friend Sam decides there is a fortune to be made from soy-plastic.
But the Roosevelt administration chose to tackle the farm problem by intervening in the market -- a policy that lives on today in federal subsidy checks. Oil discoveries and chemistry advances made synthetic products ever cheaper and stronger.
The closely held nature of Cargill -- which generated fiscal 2006 revenue of $75.2 billion -- has allowed it to nurture the idea of renewable chemicals. Free from the quarterly demands of Wall Street, the commodity-processing giant is able to invest in agriculture without buffeting from impatient shareholders.
Cargill was spending heavily to develop corn-derived plastic more than a decade ago, but its customers were mostly Asian manufacturers experimenting with the material. Although the company is tight-lipped about the current size of its renewable chemicals businesses, it likely won't be more than a blip on its income statement for several years.
"This is the emerging business opportunity of this company," says K. Scott Portnoy, Cargill's corporate vice president. "This is all part of diversifying and spreading our bets."
Cargill feeds the sugar it makes from corn to micro-organisms that convert it into lactic acid, the building block for polylactide, which can mimic many of the properties of polystyrene and polyethylene, two of the most common disposable plastics.
By 1997, Cargill had lowered the cost of making polylactide, or PLA, enough to persuade then-Dow Chemical Co. executive James Stoppert to bring Dow into a joint venture. Dow managers figured they could improve Cargill's processing methods and find plenty of customers.
After years of financially draining work, Dow Chemical's enthusiasm for corn plastic evaporated and it sold its stake in the venture to Cargill in January 2005. Cargill's corn-plastic was still more expensive than competing synthetic plastics, and couldn't handle the temperatures withstood by petro-plastics. "PLA is an inferior product with a cost problem," says William F. Banholzer, Dow Chemical chief technology officer.
Several Dow Chemical managers, however, stayed on with Cargill, whose $1 billion complex in Blair employs 530 people and is the world's biggest maker of renewable plastics. Mr. Stoppert, now senior director of Cargill's Industrial Bio-Products division, envisions 20 bio-refineries across the Midwest someday. "I have the opportunity to be a pioneer," he says.
The stamina of Mr. Stoppert and other former Dow Chemical managers is beginning to pay off. Swelling oil prices are lifting the cost of some synthetic plastics closer to that of PLA. A green campaign by Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, is fueling demand for packaging made from renewable plastic. Some California cities are banning Styrofoam containers for take-out food.
Cargill won't disclose income figures for its bio-plastics business, but annual sales have doubled every year since Dow dropped out of the joint venture, and volume is now nearly 150 million pounds.
"What ethanol is doing to the gasoline market, PLA is doing for the packaging business," says Joe Selzer, vice president of marketing and sales at Wilkinson Industries Inc., a small maker of plastic food containers in Fort Calhoun, Neb., just 10 miles down the road from Cargill's biorefinery.
A small player in the U.S. packaging industry, with annual sales of about $75 million, Wilkinson's managers were looking to diversify when they read a story in the local newspaper about corn plastic. As part of a deal to be acquired by a Chicago private investment group, Mid Oaks Investments LLC, Wilkinson was able to raise $1.5 million for modifying part of its factory to use PLA.
Now, Wal-Mart's embrace of PLA is fueling a stampede to Wilkinson's door. Produce firms, anxious to keep their place on Wal-Mart grocery shelves, are placing so many orders for corn-plastic food containers that Wilkinson has hired 50 workers, increasing its payroll to 325 people.
PLA is also becoming a factor in the coffee business. Some small coffee retailers are swearing off disposable coffee cups of the sort used by Starbucks Corp. and McDonald's Corp. Roughly 15 billion of the disposable coffee cups used annually in the U.S. have a moisture barrier made from petrochemicals.
International Paper Co., of Memphis, Tenn., is using Cargill's plastic to make an eco-friendly paper hot cup for small coffee retailers such as Vermont's Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. Solo Cup Co. is testing a PLA-lined hot cup that its executives want to launch this year.
Coca-Cola Co., too, is investigating whether Cargill's plastic could be composted on a large scale, thus cutting the garbage-hauling costs of food-service customers. In an experiment, the company used a film made of PLA to decorate its Coke bottles in Mexico last year with a Christmas scene.
"We've got a lot to learn," says Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging at the Atlanta beverage giant. "But this field finally has a lot of potential."
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