Innovators seek government backing for biobased products

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 18, 2014 - The Coca-Cola Co. wants to develop fully renewable and recyclable plastic bottles, but to do this, Scott Vitters, the general manager of the PlantBottle Innovation Platform at Coke, said investors need confidence in a marketplace that can advance the technology.

During a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Tuesday on biobased manufacturing, Vitters said Coca-Cola is investing in technology companies - including Virent in Madison, Wisconsin; Gevo in Englewood, Colorado, and Avantium in Amsterdam- to further develop the biobased bottle.

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Mike Schultheis, Coca-Cola's team lead for sustainable package design, said during a trade show after the hearing that these tech companies could help find cost-effective ways to enter the market with a fully biodegradable bottle.

The PlantBottle, first introduced in 2009, uses sugars found in plants to make ingredients identical to the fossil-based ones traditionally used in polyester fiber and resins, Vitters explained. The company's first generation PlantBottle technology now on the market replaces one of the two ingredients that make traditional polyester (PET) plastic.

Coke's innovations were showcased at the trade show along with biobased products from more than 30 other companies. Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said more than 3,000 companies in the U.S. either manufacture or distribute such products. 

“It means instead of using petroleum-based chemicals to manufacture products, companies are creating new products from American-grown agriculture crops like soybeans and corn,” Stabenow said. Witnesses at the hearing included executives from Cargill and Novozymes North America as well as members of the automobile and lumber industries, who all described hurdles their products must overcome in a petroleum-dominated marketplace.

Kurtis Miller, business unit president at Cargill Industrial Specialties, said chemicals from biomass are often more expensive than petrochemicals, except in periods of uncertain price spikes.

“This leaves a very small window for growth for most technology-driven green initiatives to achieve competitive economies of scale and fulfill their promise as engines of economic development and job creation,” Miller said. “Fluctuations in the agriculture and petrochemical markets can make or break a company.”

Miller said government can support innovation through competitively awarded grants to reduce the cost of research and development. He also said federal agencies should revise regulations to differentiate between traditional industrial products and biobased products that have environmental benefits -- like low toxicity in soil and water, and high biodegradability.

“We believe this would further encourage, and enable faster adoption of, these commercially-viable, biobased solutions,” he said.

Adam Monroe, the president of the biobased manufacturing company Novozymes North America, said “market-making policies” like the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) were vital to the company's decision to invest heavily in the U.S., including choosing Blair, Nebraska, over China for an advanced manufacturing plant location.

“In this economically uncertain time period, capital is hard to find,” Monroe said. “The more certainty we can provide the more it helps. Things like the RFS are mechanisms to provide certainty for the marketplace.” Monroe also said the 2014 Farm Bill “is a driver that can push the biobased products industry through the doorstep of commercialization.”

Stabenow emphasized the biobased initiatives in the bill's energy title during the hearings, as well as an increase in USDA funding to manage the BioPreferred Labeling and Procurement program. 

J.D. Hankins, the vice president of Hankins Inc., a Mississippi-based lumber company, said his industry is anxious for the government to finalize a provision in the Farm Bill that would allow Hankins' products to be labeled as BioPreferred.

Rules in the 2002 Farm Bill prohibited forest products from eligibility for that label by defining the industry as a “mature market” that was not innovative, he explained. However, the language of the 2014 Farm Bill states that process improvements in the lumber industry, like ensuring timber used to make forest products is from well-managed land, should be considered when determining eligibility for the BioBased label.

“We are still anxiously awaiting completion of the BioBased program's final rule, which will translate this legislation into practice,” Hankins said.

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