09/12/2011 — It would be naive of anyone to think that the American consumer society could or would entirely eliminate plastic wrappings or packaging materials. But Trellis Earth Products is angling to help convert at least part of those materials into bio-based alternatives.
The company, based in Wilsonville, Ore., makes everything from bags to cutlery to the trays that you would find in a school or corporate cafeteria. The difference between its options and those from traditional companies is that approximately 70 percent of the petroleum feedstock in Trellis Earth products is replaced with biomass feedstock.
The company makes both compostable and bio-based products. Its big pitch is that it used a process that has helped it reduce the cost normally associated with creating bio-plastics. In early August, Trellis Earth filed two patents for its bioplastics technology the the U.S. Patent and Trademark August. The first patent cover its processes for creating a “food safe, waterproof, injection moldable and thermoformable blend” that uses 70 percent biomass. The second covers a bioplastic that uses agricultural byproducts such as wheat chaff and soybean hulls to create a plastic that is 100 percent petroleum-free. Trellis Earth notes: “This new proprietary blend of biomass will allow the creation of deliware that behaves like paper but is manufactured with the economies of scale of plastics.”
Bioplastics are still a very niche part of the plastics marketplace. But the market is anticipated to grow about 18 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to BCC Research.
Bill Collins, founder, president and CEO of Trellis Earth, told me that Europe currently leads the way in using bio-based and compostable materials because their waste management options have been more limited than those in the United States. In America, bioplastics have been a niche product because of the cost implications. “Sometimes, I draw an analogy to the car industry not really embracing the electric car,” he said.
That’s one reason why Trellis Earth is focusing just as much attention on the cost implications of its approach as the sustainability angle. “The higher-priced oil feedstocks are starting to create an opportunity for us to offer cost-neutral options,” Collins said. “It’s the idea that you can ‘go green for free.’ When we can take away the price premium and bioplastics becomes a cost-neutral alternative, then we will greatly accelerate the adoption.”
The Trellis Earth zero blend products, in particular, are interesting because the biomass agricultural feedstock they use would not be otherwise used for food products, which has been one common criticism leveled at this industry. Many schools are interested in eliminating stryofoam, Collins said, which is one place where Trellis Earth has been testing its product in lunch trays. The material should be in limited commercial production in the second quarter of 2012, although the formulation may still change so that would affect the timing.
Meanwhile, Trellis Earth has been taking steps to prepare itself for an initial public offering that is planned for the fourth quarter of 2011. Among other executive and board appointments, it has hired a vice president of operations, a vice president of research and development, and a director to handle sales into supermarkets, mass merchandisers and related distribution channels.
Trellis Earth expects to use the funds from its IPO to build two plants, one in Oregon and one in Illinois. Together, those plants should have a combined capacity to create $36 million in bioplastic products annually, according to the company.