CMT Field Notes: Innovation Takes Root 2018

“Innovation Takes Root” is a biannual conference hosted by NatureWorks, developer of the Ingeo PLA polymer and the Vercet lactide chemistry platforms. This year marked the sixth such gathering, held in San Diego from September 10-12 with over 250 attendees from 27 countries. Major topics included the continued evolution of the Ingeo platform, circular economy principles, regulatory and legislative developments related to bio-based plastics, PLA use in additive manufacturing, and new developments in single-serve capsules (they’re not just for coffee anymore).

As an event, Innovation Takes Root (or ITR, for short) functions as a kind of smorgasbord for materials development and new product introductions where masterbatch producers rub shoulders with extrusion manufacturers, thermoformers meet product designers from the worlds of coffee and food packaging, and additive manufacturing companies confab with resin producers, NatureWorks foremost among them. One topic that engaged a majority of the value chain was new product development for the food service industry. According to figures from the Green Restaurant Association cited by Nicole Whitemann, applications development engineer at NatureWorks, 39 billion pieces of disposable cutlery are produced each year, only 1% of which is recycled.

Beyond new Ingeo-based product introductions from NatureWorks, several leading players in the biopolymer ecosystem announced developments in additive masterbatches such as impact modifiers for transparency, slip and antiblock agents for coefficient of friction changes, and barrier films for enhanced shelf life applications. Sukano (Duncan, SC) presented data on a variety of additives including their transparent modifier S633 as used in thermoformed packaging. This nucleating masterbatch forms many small nucleation sites which increases the speed of crystallization. A melt strength enhancer improves IV and mechanical properties while retaining transparency. Using LDR of 1-3% is shown to reduce brittleness without affecting temperature resistance.


1_PLA thermoformed clamshells

Retail volumes of coffee capsules continue to grow, though the rate of growth is set to decline from a high of 20% YoY in 2012 to a projected 5% in 2021. With approximately 380MM tons of capsules produced in in 2018, this global phenomenon appears to be reaching saturation point. In 2015, Lavazza, the Italian coffee company, launched the first compostable coffee capsule but did not achieve market recognition or acceptance due to a variety of factors include regulatory uncertainty and costs. More than 30% of the production cost of capsules is related to packaging, with compostable materials costing more than aluminum or polymer-based alternatives.

Flo (Verona, Italy) is a pan-European food service product manufacturer who recently announced a breakthrough in CPLA thermoformed coffee capsules under the name Gea. At ITR, they recounted their story of converting from PP to CPLA, including in-depth studies of Ingeo grades and the critical role that polymer crystallization plays in developing a material that meets consumer, manufacturing and environmental needs.

CMT presented data from our most recent round of material distribution trials, showing how the impact of plug material selection can have profound impacts on overall part quality. Discussions following the presentation suggest that not everyone is reading from our choir sheet – yet.