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NatureWorks to Invest $600M in New PLA Plant

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The largest manufacturer of polylactic acid (PLA) plastic is finalizing its plant to open a new PLA manufacturing complex in Thailand. NatureWorks has received final authorization from its parent companies and aims to pour over $600 million into its construction. When complete, the site will be the first, fully integrated PLA facility, making lactic acid, lactide, and PLA plastic.

Component 3D printed using Ingeo 3D860.

It’s still early stages for the plant, which begins construction in Q2 of 2022 and will be designed to produce 75,000 tons of material annually. The complex will be based at the Nakhon Sawan Biocomplex (NBC) in Nakhon Sawan Province in Thailand and is expected to open in 2024. This will be the second PLA facility for NatureWorks, which opened its first in Blair, Nebraska. The largest PLA manufacturing plant in the world, this site produces 150,000 metric tons of NatureWorks’ Ingeo-brand PLA every year. In addition to the new Thailand complex, the flagship facility will also be expanding.

NatureWorks began offering a 3D printing-optimized biopolymer in 2015. To produce the material, it uses waste from plants such as corn and sugarcane, milling it to extract the starch. Next, microorganisms break that down into lactic acid, which is converted into rings lactide that are opened up and linked into Ingeo polymer. All of this production will now take place in a single complex at the new Thai complex.

Image courtesy of NatureWorks.

Though PLA appears to be a more environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel-derived polymers, it does have its own issues discussed in greater detail here. One of the largest is that the growth of corn feedstock used for PLA typically relies on fertilizers that produce their own greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, which is 310-times more potent than carbon dioxide. A competing bioplastic manufacturer calculated that, “if Natureworks was at full capacity in production it would create 56 [terra grams] of carbon dioxide equivalent more than all of the landfills combined in the United States…”

NatureWorks is jointly owned by two companies. With 2018 revenues of $114.695 billion, Cargill is the largest privately held corporation in the U.S. Mainly working in the agricultural space, Cargill dominates the trading, buying, and distribution of grain and other commodities, including corn and palm oil. It also trades in energy, steel, and transport; raises livestock and produces feed, as well as food ingredients; and operates a financial services division.

Ingeo filament from NatureWorks. Image courtesy of 3Dom.

As a global giant, it has also been accused of being “the worst company in the world” by chair of the NGO Mighty Earth and former U.S. Congressman Henry A. Waxman, who accused Cargill of driving “the most important problems facing our world at a scale that dwarfs their closest competitors.” These issues include deforestation, pollution, climate change, and the exploitation of labor.

“Cargill is excited to take this next step with GC to support the expansion of NatureWorks through its second production facility,” continued Colleen May, president of Cargill Bioindustrial. “This marks an important milestone in our continued efforts to invest in sustainable solutions for bioindustrial customers around the world.”

“Thanks to the ongoing support of our parent companies, our plans for a second Ingeo PLA manufacturing location continue to progress,” said Rich Altice, President and CEO of NatureWorks. “This authorization was an important milestone that ensures we will be ready to begin construction in 2022 on an integrated manufacturing complex that will help us address the increasing global market demand for sustainable materials.”

NatureWorks’ other owner is GC International Corporation Company Limited, a subsidiary of PTT Global Chemical Public Company Limited (GC), which is in turn a subsidiary of PTT Public Company Limited. Owned by the Thai government, PTT is the country’s largest business and the only Thai firm listed as a Fortune Global 500 company.

Dr. Kongrapan Intarajang, CEO of GC, said, “GC, Thailand’s leading chemical company and the world’s leading environmentally friendly bio-chemical producer, is committed to operating in accordance with sustainability guidelines and circular economy principles. Sustainability creates balanced growth in economic, social, and environmental dimensions, driven by the framework of the SDGs. Today, GC and Cargill, joint owners of NatureWorks, the top PLA biopolymer manufacturer globally, are ready to expand investment in the biochemical sector following the BOI’s investment promotion approval of NatureWorks.”

Now that these joint owners have approved of the PLA complex, final design and construction can begin. Jacobs has performed the front-end engineering design and will complete the final detailed engineering. IAG will handle engineering and construction, executing project management, project controls, and procurement services.

At a time when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is warning that humanity is in the process of irreversibly altering the planet’s climate in ways that threaten life on Earth, it is obviously necessary to move away from fossil fuels in all things, including the production of polymers. However, if ordinary humans have a say in the way that these changes are made, we should consider who is involved in in this resource shift. In the case of some companies, biodegradable polymers may just be a way of shoring up their bottom line as they continue destroying the ecosystem in other ways.

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