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PLANT takes on Novamont

Italian bio-plastics developer has made a splash in Canada thanks to Brampton's Ralston.


May 25, 2012
by Matt Powell, Assistant Editor

TORINO, Italy: While the terms “sustainability” and “environmentally-friendly” are generally conducive to competitive advantage these days, the plastics industry has struggled to shake the acumen that’s kept it a black-spot in the world of manufactured goods because of the petroleum-based, fossil materials it’s produced from.

Thanks to modern technology, however, bio-plastics have become increasingly prevalent. Some thanks may also be warranted at an increasing social and cultural determination to keep the world as green as can be.

And while PLANT has covered bio-plastics on a Canadian level recently (check out “Autoparts made out of…shrimp and crab?” if you haven’t yet), a recent visit to a Torino-based bio-plastics developer called Novamont during a journalist delegation hosted by Machines Italia and the Italian Trade Commission was an eye-opener to what the Italians are not only doing in the world of sustainble plastics, but also perpetuating the fact that companies there are uber-serious about innovation.

Novamont, which was founded in 1989 as Fertec, is now one of Italy’s largest producers of commercial and consumer products focused on innovation through sustainability. Today, it produces more than 80,000 tonnes of biodegradable, compostable bio-plastics annually, which are found in garbage and shopping bags, toys, hygiene products ad even car tires.

When the company started as Fertec, it emphasized on innovation, opening as a research centre with the aim of combining chemistry and agriculture to produce materials and products that were conducive to sustainability, and made from raw vegetable materials such as starches found in corn.

Today, it’s headquarters in Torino employs 150 people, 30% of which are dedicated to R&D and innovation. With expected profits of more than $258 million in 2012, the company continues to invest 10% of its revenues back into R&D. It now boasts an impressive innovation portfolio of more than 70 patents, which includes its flagship material, Mater-Bi, a family of bioplastics that’s obtained from plants, such as corn starch, and biodegradable polymers from renewable raw materials and fossil raw materials.

Manufactured at Novamont’s factory in Terni, Mater-Bi comes in granular form made up of different formulations, or “grades” as the company calls them. In grades containing starch, the ingredients are “complexed” with different quantities of biodegradable polymetric complexing agents to create a variety of molecular superstructures for different uses.

Novamont says all Mater-Bi products are biodegradable through composting. Some can be composted under the harsher conditions of domestic composting, while others biodegrade in soil.

The bio-plastics is so customizable, it lends itself to an extensive range of uses, which include agricultural functions (mulching, film, twine), packaging for foodstuffs and biofiller for the automotive sector.

The product even has a Canadian precense nowadays—fitting, considering Novamont exports 65% of its business—thanks to Brampton, Ontario’s W. Ralston Inc., a producer of polyethylene film and Canada’s first producer of plastic garbage bags. Today, the company uses Novamont’s Mater-Bi in its BIOSAK compostable bags.

The company says its bags offer a competitive advantage as more municipalities make the move towards not allowing traditional petroleum-based plastic bags in compost programs because they contaminate compost with plastic residues. Today, the regions of Durham, Peel, Halton, Niagara and Simcoe County in Ontario have banished traditional plastic bags and encourage composters to use Ralston’s BIOSAK bags.

The company also leverages the fact that more municipalities are selling compost at as much as $30 a ton as a selling point. It says plastic residue from traditional bags make the compost worth less. BIOSAK bags are certified compostable and as such, they are food for the micro-organisms in the compost pile.

PLANT’s new friend, Slyvie Barak, who writes for UMB’s Design News from San Francisco, put together a great video from the visit to Novamont, which you can view here.

Until next time, arrivederci.

Missed any of PLANT’s coverage from Italy? Don’t worry—it’s all below.

PLANT takes on Milan: Day 1

PLANT takes on Milan: Day 2

PLANT takes on Museo Ferrari [PHOTO GALLERY]

PLANT takes on Lamiera [PHOTOS + VIDEO]

PLANT takes on SAES Getters Spa. [VIDEO]

PLANT takes on Centro Richerche Fiat [VIDEO]