With energy resources dwindling and "sustainability" becoming a must-have word in the lexicon of almost every company in the developed world, the debate over the use of cleaner materials is intensifying, especially when it comes to plastic.
Some claim the "war on plastic" is unjustified, with people to blame for pollution rather than the material itself, while others argue that taking simple steps to replace traditional plastics with more natural biological substitutes would cut back on carbon emissions drastically.
One such company is the Italian firm Novamont, whose starch-based Mater-Bi bio-plastic is already widely used in supermarket shopping bags and even tire treads.
Novamont was originally established back in 1989 under the name Fertec, a research center with the aim of combining the study of chemistry and agriculture to produce fuel and materials more conducive to the principles of environmental sustainability.
Fertec’s basic philosophy was that the environment was something able to propel the development of a business that was economically sustainable and competitive on a large scale. As such, the firm plowed money, time and resources into looking for natural alternatives to various materials, bio-fuels, lubricants, detergents and even paper.
Despite the fact that bio-fuels could indeed be created from crops, however, scientists quickly discovered that the process was simply not sustainable.
The annual worldwide demand for fuel required is around 1.5 billion metric tons (and is rapidly increasing). In no way could this need be covered by food crops because the entire planet would not provide sufficient space for the planting required.
Looking at the figures, total corn production worldwide --one of the crops most widely used in the bio-fuel industry-- is 700 million metric tons. Italy produces around 10 million metric tons and cannot even meet the requirements of its human food and animal feed sectors, being forced to import much of its needs.
On the other hand, scientists posited, just 70,000 hectares of corn and 600,000 hectares of oleaginous non-food crops would be sufficient to meet Italy’s total requirements for packaging plastics, amounting to some 2 million metric tons. Considering that Italy’s cultivatable lands come to 15 million hectares, Fertec reasoned that bio-plastics would not adversely affect the food chain and, indeed, might even strengthen it.
Thus, in 1992, the firm decided to focus solely on the creation of bio-materials, changing its name to Novamont in 1994. Today, Novamont is the largest European company producing bioplastics using vegetable components, having invested upward of 120 million euros in developing a broad range of products from vegetable raw materials.
Novamont became a profitable company in 2001 and is currently on track in 2012 to see a turnover of some 200 million euros, with a staff of around 150 people, 30 percent of whom are employed in research and development.
Still today the company consistently reinvests 10 percent of its profits into further R&D at its plant near Turin in Italy.