Berry Plastics Corporation (Berry) has teamed up with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the in-house research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to create sustainable solutions in packaging. A totally biodegradable, competitively priced, thermoplastic is in the early stages of development for use in food containers. The plastic is manufactured from a biodegradable polymer, poly(lactic acid) (PLA), and up to 70% of sugar beet pulp (SBP). SBP is a fiber-rich byproduct of beet sugar processing. The U.S. beet sugar industry generates more than 1.5 million tons of dry pulp each year, which are mainly used as low-value livestock feed. ARS scientist, Dr. LinShu Liu and his colleagues in the Eastern Regional Research Center, Wyndmoor, PA; Professor Jinwen Zhang of the Washington State University, Pullman, WA; and Ms. Gail Becke and her coworkers at Berry Plastics, Evansville, IN, are collaborating on a project to convert SBP into a thermoplastic composite with PLA.
The research started in 2004, when Liu collaborated with Dr. Victoria Finkenstadt of the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, IL. The team developed the first PLA/SBP thermoplastics in which the tensile strength decreased in relation to the amount of SBP in the composites. To solve this problem, the team has continued their pioneering work. Using newly developed technology, 50% SBP thermoplastics are able to retain the mechanical properties similar to low density polystyrene or polypropylene. PLA is biomass-derived, compostable and is non-toxic, making it an ideal packaging material. PLA is more expensive to produce than most petroleum-derived thermoplastics, which narrows the application of PLA in the packaging industry. A 50% SBP/PLA thermoplastic can match or beat the cost of conventional petroleum-derived plastics. The technology is promising and once fully developed, it will provide a completely green material for food packaging.
Berry is a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging which includes a variety of rigid products as well as a wide selection of flexible package solutions. Based in Evansville, Indiana, the company has over 70 manufacturing facilities worldwide and over 15,000 employees. As this new technology develops, Berry Plastics plans to further expand on its sustainable offerings in the plastic packaging market. Along with greatly benefiting the plastic packaging arena, this sugar beet pulp-PLA bioplastic will also strengthen the competitiveness of the US beet sugar industry in the global market.