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Bioplastics supplier NatureWorks talks on PLA recycling, its new plant, and pricing

As has been widely reported, Danone has switched from polystyrene to polylactic acid, a plastic based on plant starch, for its Activia yogurt cups in Germany. The change was made for packs of 4x115g and 8x115g yogurt.

, a plastic based on plant starch, for its Activia yogurt cups in Germany. The change was made for packs of 4x115g and 8x115g yogurt. According to a recent study funded by the trade association European Bioplastics, global bioplastics production capacity will more than double from 2010 to 2015, with capacity forecast to exceed 1 million tonnes this year.

PlasticsToday sat down with Steve Davies, marketing manager at NatureWorks, which supplies the PLA used in the Danone yogurt packaging, to talk about the yogurt project and also about his company's ongoing developments. As Davies pointed out, this was not Danone's first use of PLA in yogurt packaging. Stonyfield Farm last year switched from polystyrene to PLA; that dairy is owned 85% by Danone.

According to NatureWorks and Danone, the switch to PLA from polystyrene will improve the Activia packaging's carbon footprint by 25% and use 43% less fossil resources compared to the previous packaging, based on a life cycle assessment (LCA) study conducted by the Heidelberg, Germany-based LCA Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU).

In the initial press announcement, Danone and NatureWorks stated they are working on a program for collection and feedstock recovery of the PLA containers. Davies elaborated, explaining that NatureWorks works with Belgian company Galactic, which already has built a small plant for recovery of lactic acid, the key PLA feedstock, and is keen to help PLA processors recover their production scrap. Later, should the quantity of PLA packaging in use increase, there may eventually be demand for Galactic's services for feedstock recovery of post-consumer PLA products. (Here is a link to our initial reporting on the NatureWorks / Galactic project.)

According to Davies, NatureWorks largest markets currently are foodservice wares, flexible films and non-wovens. The fastest growing end-use applications for the company's Ingeo-brand of PLA are in durable goods and non-wovens. Only about 1% of the supplier's output is sold for blowmolding of bottles.   

NatureWorks has expansion plans, with its preference somewhere in Southeast Asia but likely not in China, said Davies. It requires about four years to build one of its PLA plants. About 1/3 of the company's sales by volume are into Asia, he added. Japan was its first market for commercial applications, but Taiwan is now the single largest customer country in the region.

According to Davies, the Ingeo materials already are "pretty price competitive" with polystyrene and polypropylene when these materials are costing processors $0.90-$1.00/lb. Although prices for both materials have dropped slightly in the past weeks, current prices are just below the ones he cited. Take these current prices for standard thermoplastics, add in consumer or brand owner preference for bioplastics, legislation, or a combination of these, and a situation could emerge where PLA becomes an economically viable alternative.  

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