Back in the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1976 — wasn’t that a time! – Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase and Gilda Radner did an amusing routine about a product called Shimmer. The scene unfolds in a suburban kitchen where a husband, played by Ackroyd, and wife, played by Radner, are arguing:
Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!
Husband: No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!
Wife: It’s a floor wax!
Husband: It’s a dessert topping!
Wife: It’s a floor wax, I’m telling you!
Husband: It’s a dessert topping, you cow!
Spokesman (Chase): [ enters quickly ] Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping! Here, I’ll spray some on your mop.. [ sprays Shimmer onto mop ] ..and some on your butterscotch pudding. [ sprays Shimmer onto pudding ]
[ Husband eats while Wife mops ]
Husband: Mmmmm, tastes terrific!
Wife: And just look at that shine! But will it last?
I was reminded of Shimmer when I sat down recently to talk with Steve Davies, the director of public affairs and marketing at Nature Works, a private company that aims to turn carbohydrates from plants into a wide array of products and materials–as you’ll see below.
Nature Works represents “one of the largest efforts every in green chemistry,” the company says.
Why green? Because the plastics and fibers made by NatureWorks from plants replace oil-based products. “We live and breathe petro,” Steve says, reminding me that many carpets, bed sheets and fabrics (polyester, polypropylene) contain petroleum-based textiles. Plastic packaging, of course, is also oil-based.
By contrast, NatureWorks’ industrial resin, which is sold under the brand name Ingeo, is now made from corn but could easily be made from other plants like sugar cane, or from agricultural waste or non-food plants. The manufacturing of Ingeo generates fewer greenhouse gases when compared to conventional plastics, and it cuts our dependence on oil, according to the company’s eco-profile. It also has the potential to be recycled or composted.
Like Shimmer, Ingeo is versatile. It’s made into yogurt cups,
and the exterior of this Canon copier,
this floor covering from Tandus
and the bag holding these chips, which are sold under the Target store brand, Archer Farms.
So how is the company doing? Well, it’s been a long road from concept to market for Cargill, the company whose researchers began developing bioplastics back in 1989. Cargill formed a joint venture with Dow Chemical to start NatureWorks, and built a manufacturing plant in Blair, Nebraska, in 2002. Newman’s Own and Wild Oats Market were among the early adopters of NatureWorks’ bio-plastic, then called PLA or polylactic acid, using it for food packaging. But when the material turned up in plastic bottles, recyclers rebelled because it fouled up PET recycling streams. [See my 2006 story for Fortune.com, Why it’s not easy being green.] Dow exited the joint venture, and NatureWorks subsequently discouraged use of PLA in bottles.
Despite such stumbles, Cargill stuck with NatureWorks–as a private company, it can afford to be patient. In recent years, the company has grown by 25 to 30% annually to become the world’s largest manufacturer of bioplastics. Last October, PTT Global Chemical, a Thai chemical company, invested $150 million in NatureWorks. The company said then that it would build a second manufacturing plant in Thailand.
“Everyone wants to get away from petro plastics either to tout a low carbon product or to reduce price volatility,” Davies says.
Well, not everyone. Conventional plastics still dominate the packaging business, and they are likely to do so unless oil prices rise.
But Ingeo has one big advantage over conventional plastics in food servicewater (items like plates, cups, cutlery) because it decomposes in industrial composters. As a result, Ingeo provides a potential solution to the problem of what to do with food waste. Right now, most food waste winds up in landfills; because it is usually mixed with petroleum-based plastics, it can’t be composted. But those restaurants and food-service operators that use Ingeo to make packaging, plates, flatware and glasses can compost their waste stream. Increasingly, colleges and universities, some of which have their own composting facilities, as well as event venues, use compostable food service ware because they are aiming to eliminate waste and save money. Municipalites such as San Francisco and Atlanta, and major league sports teams such as the Portland TrailBlazers all driving demand for compostable foodserviceware as a way to divert their waste from landfill. (Compost is then sold to farmers or gardeners.) As more industrial composting facilities are built, the potential market for Ingeo will grow.
Unlike Shimmer, which hasn’t been heard from since 1976.