Global brand owner Nestlé (Vevey, Switzerland) and Danimer Scientific (Bainbridge, GA), a developer and manufacturer of biodegradable plastic products, announced in mid-January a global partnership to develop biodegradable bottles for Nestlé’s water business using Danimer’s polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) polymer Nodax.
"Researchers have shown that PHA biodegrades in a wide range of environments, including industrial and home compost, soil, fresh and sea water," said Stephen Croskrey, CEO of Danimer Scientific. "As a material that is reliably biodegradable across both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, our Nodax PHA is an ideal fit to drive the creation of eco-friendly packaging for Nestlé’s products. Nodax PHA is suitable feedstock for industrial compost, home compost, and anaerobic digester facilities as well as reuse through recycling. We look forward to supporting Nestlé in the years to come.”
The company isn’t the only major brand interested in Nodax PHA, Danimer also has a partnership with PepsiCo (Purchase, NY), which may also gain access to the resins developed under this collaboration.
However, the new partnership also positions the Nodax PHA platform for growth. “This new partnership with Nestlé helps to accelerate our efforts to bring PHA into the marketplace and create awareness of the benefits of utilizing Nodax PHA,” Croskrey tells PlasticsToday.
Brands and plans
The arrangement is a natural step for Nestlé aligned with the company’s sustainability goals. In 2018, Nestlé announced its commitment to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025.
Stefan Palzer, Chief Technology Officer for Nestlé said, "Strategic innovation partnerships play a key role for Nestlé as we make progress in improving the sustainability of our packaging. In order to effectively address the plastic issue in various markets, we need a wide range of technological solutions, including new paper materials and biodegradable polymers that can also be recycled."
Maurizio Patarnello, CEO of Nestlé Waters said, "Nestlé Waters is committed to addressing the growing global plastic waste packaging issue. A biodegradable bottle, which is also recyclable, can help improve the environmental impact of our business in countries without collection and recycling systems."
This all bodes well for Danimer Scientific’s specialized resin.
“We are creating value for brand owners by helping them meet their sustainability goals,” Croskrey notes. “There is a tremendous opportunity to improve our overall impact on the environment by utilizing these materials in the proper way.”
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Opportunity for change
A potentially fundamental pivot by a major brand in its polymeric choices yields a number of questions.
For starters, why would a brand owner consider replacing PET with another resin or resin blend if its already one of the most-recycled polymers?
“While PET is widely recycled, there are many countries that have very little recycling infrastructure,” Croskrey answers. “Even in the U.S., the EPA estimates that only 29.9% of PET bottles and jars were recycled in 2015. According to a recent article in National Geographic, only 9% of all plastics are recycled. Clearly, there is an opportunity for biodegradable bottles to help lessen the impact of the convenience of single-use plastics.”
There was much discussion at the recent The Packaging Conference in Las Vegas in early February that centered on plastics and sustainability where the often-heard critical need to improve plastics recycling for single-use plastics was the lack of infrastructure.
It also seems ironic that a brand would select a marine-biodegradable resin for a bottled water.
“The neat thing about PHA is that it breaks down when exposed to bacteria and fungi in natural environments, just like paper or wood,” Croskrey responds. “In places where the presence of bacteria is low, the material can last indefinitely, just like a piece of furniture in your home.”
What’s the risk of PHA yielding microplastics, which seem to be the modern scourge of the ocean?
“The material does break down into smaller pieces during the degradation process but, unlike other materials, it degrades completely,” he answers. “Bacteria feed on PHA as a carbon source and will consume the material until it is all metabolized into carbon doixide and water in aerobic environments.”
As far as Nestlé’s specific plans, Croskrey is unable to discuss potential applications, though he has a clear answer as to the viability and business case for Nodax PHA going forward in these markets.
“A marine-degradable bottle that ends up in the ocean can degrade completely,” Croskrey says, “which makes a lot of sense for its use. While we do not encourage people to litter with any material, plastic tends to find its way into the environment. But if an item made of PHA ends up in the environment, it will biodegrade completely in a short period of time. Why not use a biodegradable material that can help safeguard the ecosystems of the world?”
Then there’s the cost premium of PHA versus PET. “PHA is priced at a premium to PET because it is renewable and biodegradable as compared to PET, which is neither,” says Croskrey. “As scale improves, we will have flexibility to price closer to PET.”
Danimer Scientific's next steps
What’s next for Danimer Scientific in the PHA development process? Croskrey informs PlasticsToday that “product development on bottle resins has begun. We hope to have a commercial resin within the next couple of years. Once a resin is selected, we imagine it will have to go through rigorous testing to pass mechanical property requirements as well as the certification process for food contact and degradation.”
He already knows that polymeric modifications will be needed to enable practical production of PHA bottles and packaging by Nestlé.
“All biopolymers, including PHA, can require some modifications to allow for production on existing equipment,” Croskrey says. “We design our resins so they will process with as little modification as possible. In many cases, the temperature profiles in processing can be much different than what is required with traditional plastic resins.”
He is unable to disclose what level of PHA if 100% or other will be used for the bottles.
When Nestlé or other brands commercialize PHA bottles and other packaging, where would he like to see this packaging end up?
“Our hope is that consumers will dispose of the bottles in backyard compost systems or that they'll be collected for industrial composting or anaerobic digestion,” he responds.
Meantime, Danimer Scientific will continue to pioneer creating sustainable alternatives to traditional single-use plastics.
“We have successfully demonstrated a straw resin that is biodegradable in backyard compost and marine environments,” says Croskrey. “This resin has been tested on existing equipment and can run at speeds similar to polypropylene.
“And our work with PepsiCo on an industrially compostable chip bag was recently recognized by the PLASTICS Industry Association for 2018’s Innovation in Bioplastics award, and work is underway to create a home-compostable chip bag (see Danimer Scientific’s biodegradable resins attract Frito-Lay and other brands, published March 2018) .
The company is planning additional production capacity to meet the anticipated demand with a fermentation facility in Winchester, KY, that will be the world’s first PHA commercial production plant.
“While a lot of the infrastructure that we needed for this commercial-scale PHA plant was already in place, we are bringing in some new equipment as well as modifying existing equipment,” Croskrey tells PlasticsToday. “Our plan is to begin shipping commercial quantities in early 4th Quarter 2019. We expect to create approximately 35-40 new jobs over the next year. Once we complete the initial startup, we have plans to immediately begin an expansion project to bring on more capacity by 2021.”
For more information on PHA developments from Danimer Scientifics at PlasticsToday, visit PlasticsToday.com/search/site/danimer