US chemical and agribusiness giants team up to produce renewable plastics

A joint venture between two giant US corporations is to begin large scale production of what is claimed to be the first family of polymers derived entirely from plant material that can compete with traditional plastics on a cost and performance basis.

Cargill Dow Polymers (CDP), a joint venture between Cargill and Dow Chemicals, is investing more than $300 million in a business and production facility in Blair, Neb. that will use carbon stored in plant sugars to make plastic, called polylactide (PLA). The plant is scheduled to start production at the end of 2001 and will produce 140,000 tonnes of NatureWorks™ PLA per year.

CDP claims these plastics and fibres perform as well as hydrocarbon-based polymers in applications such as clothing, cups, food containers, food wrappers and home and office furnishings.

The company says PLA uses up to 50 percent less fossil fuel than is required to produce conventional plastic resins. In addition, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing corn will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions, compared to hydrocarbon-based resins. CDP’s PLA is also compatible with standard waste management practices and is compostable in municipal and industrial composting facilities.

CDP currently uses corn as its polymer feedstock. Researchers are working on techniques to use other sources of plant material as the base feedstock. As a result, the company says natural-based polymers could be created around the world using local plant sources such as wheat, sugar beets or agricultural waste.

CDP says the NatureWorks process will lead to the development of clothing and carpeting materials that bridge the gap between natural fibres such as silk, wool, and cotton, and conventional synthetic fibres. These materials will feature attributes such as wrinkle resistance and superior texture with a high level of moisture management and resilience. PLA will also complement materials such as cotton, paper, glass, wool and silk in blends, co-extrusions and other fabrications, CDP claim.

“NatureWorks by CDP is a major step toward the development of sustainable products,” Jim Stoppert, President and CEO of CDP said. “This breakthrough process uses annually renewable resources, has a good lifecycle profile, can compete with traditional materials based on cost and performance and will ultimately use a variety of biomass feedstocks.”

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