Metabolix's joint venture with agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) will boost US production of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) by 110 million pounds a year to meet rising demand for biodegradable packaging.
Over the past five years packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, based on projections that consumers and recycling regulations will drive demand for environmentally-friendly packaging. Some companies are predicting that the market will grow by about 20 per cent a year.
In addition, a combination of pricing and retail uptake has led more and more processors to look at biodegradable natural polymer products as an alternative to polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The sharp rise in the prices for petroleum, a major component of PET and other packaging plastics, has made bioplastics a competitive alternative.
PHA, produced from a fermentation process using starch derived from potatoes, wheat or corn, can be used as an alternative to petrochemical-based plastics. The material eventually biodegrades to simple carbohydrates, carbon dioxide and water. Metabolix brands its version of PHA as "Natural Plastic".
The new PHA plant in Clinton, Iowa anticipates that processors and retailers will increasingly move away from petrochemical-derived plastics, said Jim Barber, Metabolix's president and chief executive officer.
"We believe that Natural Plastic is a breakthrough technology that has the potential to provide environmentally-conscious companies and consumers with a renewable and sustainable alternative to petrochemical-based plastics, and to positively impact climate change, pollution and energy security," he said.
Metabolix spokesperson Jackie Kolek told FoodProductiondailty.com that the PHA produced at the plant has biodegrades more efficiently than other competing products, such as polylactic acid (PLA) produced by NatureWorks.
"The big difference between the products is Metabolix Natual Plastic biodegrades in hot, cold and marine environments," she said. "The current products available only decompose in hot industrial environments."
The factory will be located adjacent to ADM's corn wet mill in Clinton. The plant will use starch from the mill's existing corn grind capacity as raw material for Natural Plastic.
Metabolix is currently operating a pilot PHA manufacturing plant with ADM to produce pre-commercial quantities of the material in a bid to develop applications with selected customers.
Metabolix says its Natural Plastics product can be used for coated paper, film or bags, and thermoformed and molded packaging.
Over the past few years a number of major packaging manufacturers have released biodegradable products.
One is Amcor, which has teamed up with Plantic Technologies to develop a biodegradable, flexible plastic packaging for confectionary.
Another is US-based NatureWorks, part of Cargill. NatureWorks is one the main mover behind the biodegradable packaging trend with its introduction of PLA, a corn-based polymer.
Others include Danish-based Danisco, which announced this year that it has produced a plasticiser from hardened castor oil and acetic acid. It is colourless, odorless and completely biodegradable.
Another company competiting in the biodegradable packaging market is UK-based Stanelco. The company markets a natural, biodegradable food packaging based on starch, called Starpol 2000.
Germany-based BASF has also announced it will launch a biodegradable plastic based on renewable raw materials in a bid to meet what it believes will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging.
The company's Ecovio plastic is made up of 45 per cent PLA from NatureWorks. The other component is BASF's existing biodegradable plastic Ecoflex, which is derived from petrochemicals.
BASF forecasts that the world market for biodegradable plastics to grow by more than 20 per cent per year.
Companies like US-based Naturally Iowa have been using PLA for packaging products like organic milk. Retailers like Delhaize in Belgium and Auchan in France have also been testing PLA for various food packaging.
This year Wal-Mart began pushing its suppliers to use more "substainable" and "green" packaging as part of its drive to reduce waste.