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Bioplastics: Metabolix execs say food contact approval nears; pricing of $2.25-$2.75/lb

During an earnings call on Wednesday, March 10, executives of bioplastics developer Metabolix said their joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland remains on track to start commercial supply in the coming weeks and expects to develop food contact-suitable grades this year. Telles, the joint-venture company, produces the Mirel brand of biodegradable plastic polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA).

 said their joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland remains on track to start commercial supply in the coming weeks and expects to develop food contact-suitable grades this year. Telles, the joint-venture company, produces the Mirel brand of biodegradable plastic polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA).

In a release of its fourth-quarter earnings and year-end 2009 results, Metabolix (Cambridge, MA) displayed that its is very much still a startup and is spending more than it is earning; for the full report read this article. It also revealed that Telles has started production at the company's $300 million-plus plant completed at the end of last year in Clinton, IA on an existing ADM site. Richard Eno, president and CEO of Metabolix, said that currently initial inventories are being built up and the plant, which will have a nameplate capacity of 50,000 tons/yr, should be shipping product to its customers within the next month.

Eno also said during the call that the company submitted a dossier last October to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requesting food contact notification (FCN) for its plastics. The dossier, he explained, addressed applications for all food types except alcohol, and conditions ranging from frozen up to contact with boiling water. Based on the progress of this FCN, the supplier intends to offer injection molding grades to food contact markets in the second quarter of this year. Potential applications include cutlery and molded food-storage containers. During the second half of the year the company expects to be marketing thermoforming and film products to food contact markets

The company's focus is not on FCN materials, however, emphasized Eno, noting it is pursuing applications as diverse as packaging, compostable bags, consumer products focused on cosmetics, gifts cards and other retail products, business equipment, agriculture and horticulture, and marine and aquatic applications. He reckoned these six segments represent more 2 billion lb of addressable demand, and said the company currently has about 100 prospects in various stages of product development with Mirel.

Pricing for the material will be between $2.25-$2.75/lb, he said. Eno justified the high price relative to the commodity resins it is targeting by saying, "Fundamentally, Mirel's unique combination of biodegradability, bio-based sourcing, and performance properties allow premium pricing relative to most petroleum-based plastics."

On the same day, Bob Engle, general manager of Telles who joined the company approximately one year ago, told attendees of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) Global Plastics Environmental Conference (GPEC; Orlando, FL; March 8-10), that commercial production will launch with four products, one each for injection molding, thermoforming, blown film, and cast film. Engle said the company anticipates offering additional products by the end of 2010, with the intention being that all its polymers will be able to run on existing plastics processing equipment.

In terms of the material itself, the company's manufacturing process starts with corn sugars like the competitive bioresin Ingeo from NatureWorks and uses microbial fermentation to produce a flake that's then compounded into pellets. Engle described the resulting PHA material as a semicrystalline polymer that can be flexible or rigid. Outlining some basic properties, he said the heat deflection temperature is 120°C, adding that Mirel has chemical resistance similar to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), oxygen barrier on par with polypropylene (PP), moisture barrier of polystyrene (PS), and good printability. At this time, Engle said Newell Rubbermaid company PaperMate is already injection molding the material into a biodegradable pen. [email protected]

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