Diane Mastrull: Ecospan has plan for vegetable-based plastics

The USDA launched a labeling program in January 2011.
The USDA launched a labeling program in January 2011.
Posted: May 15, 2012

With all his talk about sugar cane, corn, casaba, and fungi, Jeff White sounded like someone with a food obsession. But the ingredients he enumerated during an interview last week had to do with manufacturing, not a meal.

His is an unconventional view of the world, where vegetables and other crops are the base materials for such durable goods as cellphone covers, DVD trays, and shipping containers. But the success of Ecospan L.L.C., the bioplastics company he now leads that aims to replace petroleum-based plastics with those made from natural resources, depends on White’s perspective becoming widely held by consumers.

It’s not there by a long shot.

Bioplastics — generally more expensive than petroleum products — account for less than 1 percent of total global plastics use, according to the SPI Bioplastics Council, a special-interest group in Washington that promotes growth of the fledgling industry.

Prospects are promising, however, pushed in large measure by the millennial generation and its demand for green products and a more environmentally sensitive lifestyle, the council and other bioplastic advocates said. The council anticipates yearly market growth of more than 20 percent through 2015. One estimate valued the entire plastics industry at $1.6 trillion.

“There’s hurdles, but there’s so many opportunities,” said White, president of Ecospan, which is headquartered in Greenbrae, Calif., but which established a major Chester County presence last year.

The former Hewlett Packard executive-turned-serial entrepreneur/venture capitalist had served on Ecospan’s board for about a year, starting in early 2010, when he was recruited to serve as company president and help expand what until then had been a biomaterials firm largely focused on research. Ecospan had secured one customer, a multinational electronics company, for a biobased box to be used to ship small electronics, such as a smartphone, for repair or exchange, White said.

Among its advantages was that it could be used 10 times as often as a standard cardboard carton, which typically can be used once or twice, White said. Even though the biobased box might cost twice as much as a cardboard box to buy, it would wind up being five times cheaper when reuse was factored in, he said.

From an economic and regulatory standpoint, the East Coast seemed to White, a Boston native, a more conducive environment than California for building a research and pilot manufacturing site. He launched a search for a suitable location from Maryland to New Jersey, settling on Pennsylvania in part because of a $100,000 job creation tax credit from Pennsylvania, White said. The state requires 90 new jobs over three years in return for the tax break.

Having spent a number of years at HP in Wilmington, White was familiar with the Philadelphia region. He ultimately settled on an office park near Exton in West Whiteland Township because of its proximity to major roads, including Route 202 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. White said he also considered Ecospan an appropriate fit for an area with a rich history of pharmaceutical and chemical companies.

Ecospan moved into 22,000 square feet in the Whiteland Business Park just off Route 30 in December 2011. Last week, equipment was still being installed in the laboratories and the adjacent factory, which is designed primarily for small-scale manufacturing. Large orders would be contracted out.

The company produces both finished products and a resin it markets to manufacturers. That resin is 25 percent to 100 percent more expensive than petroleum-based counterparts, depending on the quality of the petroleum product, White said.

He unrelentingly guards Ecospan’s “secret sauce,” saying only that the simplest formula used to date involves four biomaterials, the most complex 14. Ecospan has tested more than 300 types of materials, White said.

As a private company, Ecospan does not disclose its financials. White said the company of 20 employees turned profitable in the third quarter of 2011, with sales increasing more than threefold that year and expected to grow more than 50 percent this year. Its dozen major customers range from start-ups to multibillion-dollar companies, he said. Ecospan is also doing reclamation with half of them, enabling those companies to have the Ecospan products they use ground up and reused, possibly for future products.

“Having that closed loop is the most ecocentric, sustainable thing you can do,” White said, especially when the process starts “with materials that are petroleum-free.”

Among those working out a deal with Ecospan is Kip Weeks, whose five-year-old company in Maine, EcoKids, makes play dough and other children’s art supplies from plant, fruit, and vegetable extracts. Weeks said biobased dough molds and dough containers seem a natural for his company, whose motto is “Creative play the natural way.”

What Paul Cannon, Ecospan vice president of sales and marketing, said could be huge for the company are two recent certifications from the U.S. Department of Agriculture verifying that the biobased content of its resins and a multipurpose container it manufactures is 94 percent. That enables Ecospan to use the USDA’s “Certified Biobased Product” labeling.

The USDA launched the labeling program in January 2011 in an effort to encourage consumers to buy biobased products — and, in the process, help support the agriculture industry and the nation’s efforts to become less dependent on foreign oil. It came nearly 10 years after the USDA initiated its BioPreferred program to increase federal government use of biobased products, said Kate Lewis, deputy manager of that program.

Of the estimated 25,000 biobased products on the market today, the USDA has awarded certification to 715 covering a range of uses, including construction, landscaping, janitorial, food-service, and packaging, said Lewis, a West Chester native.

“When consumers buy these types of products, they can be sure that the product truly contains the amount of biomaterial that the manufacturer says it does,” Lewis said.

Each certified product has been tested by a third-party laboratory, Lewis said. Working against the biobased industry “are the very iffy economic growth issues we have in the nation,” said Richard Wool, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, where he has been overseeing a variety of biobased work, including using chicken feathers in printed circuit boards.

“Ten years ago, people were falling over backward to fund research and development on green [initiatives],” Wool said. “At the moment, they are falling over backward just to stay alive.”

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

|
|
|
|
|