MN Cos. Like Bioplastics But Lack Market Resources

Minnesota manufacturers want to incorporate sustainable processes and products into their operations, but they need to gain a better understanding of the market opportunities, according to a new report from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Minnesota manufacturers are interested in using biobased plastics and other materials-but they need help finding resources and partners to integrate such materials into their processes.

That's according to a new report-called “Biobased Products: Minnesota's Opportunity and Challenge, A Focus on Bioplastics”-which was released Monday by the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).

According to the report, 81 percent of Minnesota manufacturers say that it is important, at least to some degree, for their business to produce environmentally sustainable products-and two-thirds of the state's plastic manufacturers anticipate boosting their use of biobased material. But while there is an interest in bioplastics, awareness about its potential seems to be somewhat lacking: 39 percent of Minnesota plastics manufacturers say they feel uninformed about the uses and opportunities for biobased material.

Plastics-which are typically made from fossil fuels-are used in everything from cars to household items and furniture, although they are especially prevalent in containers and packaging. As businesses work to make their processes and products more sustainable, biobased plastics are increasingly entering the discussion. According to Pike Research, plastic-based packaging will be the fastest-growing sector within the sustainable packaging market over the next five years.

According to the University of Hannover, there are now more than 300 types of bioplastics, which are made-at least in part-from materials like corn, sugar cane, and starch.

The 94-page report calls attention to several companies that have already launched initiatives surrounding bioplastics and sustainability.

Minneapolis-based Target Corporation, for example, is a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and in 2006 dedicated a packaging team to help make recommendations about sustainable choices for Target-brand material and reduce packaging when possible. Target also introduced a corn-based gift card in 2005 using resins made from renewable resources.

Warroad-based Marvin Windows & Doors is also trying to use more sustainable materials and processes, according to the report. But the challenge is making sure that such materials perform just as well as traditional materials. Biobased materials like corn or wheat typically work well for interior applications but aren't ideal for use outdoors because they don't have good moisture resistance, according to a company scientist cited in the report.

Another challenge: Experts say that bioplastics can be inefficient to create and sometimes use almost as much energy as plastics made with fossil fuels. Various stakeholders working together will be critical to finding ways around those issues, according to the report.

“The report makes it clear that Minnesota manufacturers are intrigued by what biobased materials can offer in terms of managing fluctuating petroleum costs and even creating a market niche for themselves,” Teresa Spaeth, executive director of AURI, said in a statement. “But they want to understand more about the characteristics, performance, manufacturing processes, and market opportunities. It is important that education and networking opportunities be developed to help Minnesota manufacturers get the information they need so they can be on the vanguard of this emerging market.”

The report identified recommended steps that will spur bioplastics production growth in Minnesota. Some of them are:

¥ Conduct a “connect-the-dots” conference that brings together bioplastics providers, university researchers, start-ups, manufacturers, and venture capital firms to discuss what's being done and to share ideas and research. />¥ Create more robust technology transfer-possibly through a guide or Web site that incorporates services available to increase biobased opportunities. />¥ Investigate the possibility of using ethanol plants as the centerpiece for a biorefinery “campus” that includes incubators for green chemical start-ups, biomaterials research and development, and manufacturing using biobased materials. />¥ Consider a biobased plastics manufacturing pilot plant facility in which manufacturers, bioplastics suppliers, and product developers could test processes and products. />¥ Conduct a pilot educational study of a community-based compost drop-off where residents could bring compostable materials, including bioplastics.