Over the past year packaging suppliers have been introducing various forms of biodegradable plastics made from a variety of plants, in the main corn, based on projects that there will be a growing demand for environmentally-friendly packaging driven by consumers and recycling regulations.
With the rise in oil prices, the cost of petroleum based plastics have come more into line with that of the biodegradable natural alternatives. Some companies are predicting that the market for the alternative plastics will grow by about 20 per cent a year.
ADM and Metabolix, a biotechnology company that has developed a form of PHA, will begin production of what they call a "new generation of high-performance natural plastics" at one of ADM's plants in North America. The plant was not identified.
The companies said PHA plastics had "excellent shelf life and resistance even to hot liquids, greases and oils."
The plant will have an initial annual capacity of 50,000 tons per year. The plastic will be produced under a joint venture with Metabolix, a biotechnology company that has developed a form of PHA.
"As the world's demand for petroleum continues to increase, ADM believes that this facility is a positive step towards producing renewable plastics that offer the global marketplace an alternative to traditional petroleum-derived plastics," the company stated.
PHAs are polymers are synthesized in the bodies of bacteria fed with glucose, such as corn sugar, in a fermentation plant. The process produces a range of plastics that are durabile during use, but are compostable and biodegradable.
ADM's plant will produce PHA natural plastics that have a wide variety of applications in products currently made from petrochemical plastics, including coated paper, film, and molded goods.
In 2004, ADM and Metabolix announced a partnership to commercialize the company's PHA technology.
ADM is one of the world's largest processors of soybeans, corn, wheat and cocoa. The Illinois-based company also produces soy meal and oil, ethanol, corn sweeteners and flour along with food and feed ingredients.
Hikes in the oil price has made biodegradable polymers more attractive as a packaging material. Food packagers last year faced price hikes of between 30 per cent to 80 per cent for conventional plastics due to the increased cost of petroleum. With the increases some bioplastics products reached full price competitiveness with the traditional oil-based packaging.
In 2005, sugar and starch were less expensive raw materials than mineral oil.
Over the past year 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 polylactic acid (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.