"We know we have to be within a reasonable cost-comparison to PET," Mark Vergauwen, business development manager of NatureWorks LLC, told www.foodproductiondaily.com at Interpack 2005.
"But raw materials for oil-based packaging solutions have been going up, and going the other way, we have been able to bring our costs down. This means that we are starting to meet PET on the market at similar price levels. "
As a result, Vergauwen believes that the renewable material, which can be used in a broad range of packaging applications from bottles to tubs, is now in a position to present itself as a genuinely cost-effective biodegradable alternative within the packaging market.
"There have been hurdles, but everything is falling into place," said Vergauwen. "There is a lot more work going on, thanks largely to the power of referral."
The company has implemented a strategy of going straight to the end market in order to create a pull effect along the supply chain. With French retail giant Auchan recently announcing its interest, this strategy appears to be paying off.
"The push effect takes too long, so we skipped the four or five steps in between," said Vergauwen.
Suppliers and manufacturers will therefore have to realign their supply chains to take into account what the retailers are demanding. NatureWorks LLC is clearly aware that these days, the power of the retailer is supreme along the supply chain.
"We are working with brand owners to show them that there is something different they can offer consumers," said Vergauwen. "We need to convince them of the material's potential."
Many analysts believe that biodegradable packaging has a bright future. Growing environmental awareness and consumer power coupled with the inexorable rise in pre-packaged disposable meals means that food manufacturers and packagers are increasingly being targeted to improve their environmental performances.
Datamonitor statistics show that more than one-third of European consumers live alone and are spending €140 billion a year on food, drinks and personal care products. Single people spend 50 per cent more per person on consumer-packaged goods than a two adult household. Such trends underline why the environmental impact of food packaging has never been greater.
Certainly, NatureWorks has gained considerable momentum in the past two years. Since January 2003, the company has increased production capacity by more than 15-fold, and reduced costs per pound to be competitive with petroleum-based polymers such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Like PET, the corn-based plastic permits a multitude of varied and complex bottle shapes and sizes that draw the attention of the consumer. Monolayer bottles of NatureWorks PLA can be formed on the same injection-moulding/stretch blow-moulding equipment used for PET, with no sacrifice in production rate.
"We look the same as PET, but are from a totally different origin," said Vergauwen. "Also, PET has some properties that we don't have, so we're not saying we're trying to replace the material outright, just concentrate on the areas we do better, such as fresh food packaging and products that don't require sophisticated barriers."
While NatureWorks PLA has been shown to perform well and offer consumers and manufacturers a viable biodegradable alternative to plastic, cost has always been in PET's favour. This, however, is something that Vergauwen believes is set to change.
NatureWorks LLC was renamed in February 2005, following Cargill's decision to acquire The Dow Chemical Company's interest in Cargill Dow LLC, a 50:50 joint venture formed in 1997 to commercialise polylactic acid biopolymers. The newly named company functions as a stand-alone entity owned by Cargill. Cargill is the original inventor of polylactic acid (PLA).