What do you think is the best end-of-life solution for PLA? Why?
Just as there is no one waste system for every region or country, there is no best end-of-life solution for PLA. The application, its use, and the raw material together determine the best path for an item especially when viewed through the circular economy lens. For example, packaging with food remnants should be directed to industrial composting where the food and the packaging can be processed together. Keeping food waste out of incineration and landfills is an important way to reduce methane emissions and recover the valuable nutrients from food for compost that can be applied to our increasingly dwindling soils.
In 3D printing where Ingeo is used for monofilament, processes like mechanical recycling and chemical recycling are much more appropriate. In our recent webinar, we shared research that we’ve done to demonstrate the best processing guidelines for successfully mechanically recycling PLA into new monofilament. There are also many companies in the 3D market that mechanically recycle filament and parts into new filament.
Are you looking at other feedstocks than corn, or will you be in the future?
Yes, our intent has long been to incorporate diverse, renewable feedstocks into our portfolio since our current manufacturing process does not require corn, only sugar. As we pursue our global expansion outside the U.S., we look to locate a facility in a region with a locally abundant, annually renewable feedstock and that is unlikely to be corn. Also, through our participation in the BioRECO2VER consortium, we continue to pursue long-term research & development into technologies that will convert greenhouse gases directly to lactic acid.
While those longer-term projects develop, we’ve been working to bring certified sustainable agricultural practices into use for our current feedstocks. Using the 3rd party certification, ISCC PLUS, we can certify the use of best practices that provide for both environmental and social sustainability on the farms that supply corn for our manufacturing. We are targeting certification of 100% of our feedstock use by the end of crop year 2020, and recently reported that at the end of 2019 we officially certified 64% of the feedstocks currently in use.
Why has NatureWorks chosen to support the Green Sports Alliance? Why is that so important?
NatureWorks has been a proud supporter of the Green Sports Alliance since 2010 when we joined them at their first summit in Portland, OR. The motto of the GSA has been “Leveraging the cultural & market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play.” We saw early on that by working the GSA, we could leverage the power of sports and their closed loop venues to demonstrate how zero waste and organics recycling could be successfully executed, economically beneficial, and contribute to more sustainable communities.
As sports venues looked for ways to lower waste costs and were spurred on by fans to adopt more sustainable practices, we saw food waste diversion facilitated by compostable food serviceware as a meaningful opportunity. Working with sports venues through the GSA led to the growth of industrial composting infrastructure in certain areas. In Minneapolis, venues like Target Field and US Bank Stadium were able to take advantage of industrial composting infrastructure that was already in place. In Atlanta, however, Mercedes-Benz stadium sought to incorporate organics collection into their operations, which provided the impetus for a local industrial composter to open. At Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, their growing organics recycling collection is now part of the regenerative agriculture farm Pocono Organics that they opened across the street.
Now after 10 years of partnership, we see an incredible acceleration in the number of stadiums at both the collegiate and professional level adopting organics recycling programs and compostable food serviceware.
How has the pandemic affected the company? Have you gained new business? Lost business?
The pandemic was certainly an extraordinary unplanned global event which has created an enormous amount of uncertainty and rapid change to some of the markets and customers that we serve.
For us at NatureWorks, the health and safety of our employees and their families was foremost in our minds. Also, as a part of the critical essential infrastructure, we took seriously our responsibility to deliver our biomaterials on time as promised to the global supply chains that rely on them.
After we were able to secure the safety of our employees and the continuity of our manufacturing, we turned our focus to how our customers’ needs and the markets are evolving. Overall, we have not experienced reduced demand for Ingeo from the market.
What we have seen in the course of the pandemic is the convergence of the environmental concerns around plastics with a heightened need for products that ensure public safety and hygiene. In particular, we’ve seen increased demand for single-use items made from biomaterials because they are seen to provide benefits for hygiene and safety as well as sustainability.
Since March, we have collaborated with our downstream industry partners in 3D printing and nonwovens to address the shortage of critical personal protective equipment. The development and scaling of new Ingeo-based spunbond nonwoven technology for more breathable, reusable N95 surgical masks is one of the promising new markets accelerated in the course of the pandemic.
Where will the focus of the company be in 5 years?
In 5 years, the focus for NatureWorks will be on continued global expansion, new applications, and new Ingeo grades tailored for those applications. We see significant long-term opportunity in the market for biomaterials like Ingeo, and we intend to remain at the forefront of that growth.