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Have your tableware, and eat it too

Customers of Italian grocery cooperative Coop Italia are eating up new disposable tableware products made from corn-based plastic resin from NatureWorks LLC (www.natureworksllc.com). Introduced in April, the new line of store-branded cups, plates and bowls made from NatureWorks(R) polylactide (PLA) polymer resin have shown phenomenal sales growth, with 2 million plates and bowls and 4 million cups sold to-date.

"Our customers have embraced the concept and have expressed their interest with repeated purchases," says Ulisse Pedretti, environmental issues manager at Coop Italia. "We have seen a steady increase in sales of this product line over the summer, and we expect to double sales by the end of the year."

Available for the first time in Europe as a retail product, the tableware was introduced as part of Coop Italia's eco-logici brand, which was launched in 2000 and primarily includes food items, as well as 11 different nonfood items. Pedretti explains that products under the eco-logici brand name are "created with respect for the environment today so we will have a clean and livable environment in the future." He adds: "The tableware made from NatureWorks PLA is one of the few nonfood items we have labeled with our eco-logici brand because it meets our standards for providing an environmental benefit."

Made from corn, NatureWorks PLA is the first commercially viable biopolymer derived from an annually renewable resource that performs equal to or better than traditional resins, relates NatureWorks LLC. Packaging made from PLA is 100-percent nature-based and will degrade in industrial compost facilities (see PD, July '02), p. 20 to learn more about the process of creating PLA).

Coop Italia's first foray into PLA packaging took place in early 2004, when it began replacing the expanded polystyrene trays used for its fresh cheese products with three sizes of clear trays made from PLA in some of its stores. Explains Stefano Cavallo, NatureWorks' business development manager for Southern Europe, while the trays have been a success with consumers, their adoption by Coop Italia's supermarkets has been gradual, with only 50 percent presently using the packaging. "The reason that all of the stores are not yet using the trays is because the packaging is not a store-branded product. Therefore, it is up to each individual store to decide if they want to use it," he says. "Today, the goal for Coop Italia is to have one-hundred percent of its stores using the PLA trays by 2006."

Coop Italia also test-marketed another PLA packaging format, offering organic tomatoes in a snap-lid punnet from produce and ready-to-eat salad marketer Il Melograno for a limited time. The test found that the process of introducing such packaging through Coop Italia's supply chain is long and complicated due to the large number of suppliers the cooperative works with. For example, there are four different vendors that supply Coop Italia's store-brand salad products alone. Despite this complexity, however, Cavallo relates that the group has plans to switch from polypropylene to PLA packaging for fruits and vegetables in 2006, with a total of 200 metric tons of PLA on order for the project.

We have seen a steady increase in sales of this product line over the summer, and we expect to double sales by the end of the year.

In the meantime, Coop Italia has launched into all of its 1,200 grocery stores the private-label eco-logici tableware line to provide greater visibility to its eco-friendly efforts. The drinking cups, in a 200-mL size, are clear in appearance and are packaged in quantities of 25. Designed for use with cold beverages only, the cups are available at the same cost as the previous, EPS version.

The eco-logici plates and bowls, available in bundles of 15, are opaque in color and measure 21 cm (8.3 in.) dia, with the bowls having a 3-cm (1.2-in.) depth. Because the plate and bowl products are designed to accommodate hot foods up to 176 deg F, a more lengthy production process is required, resulting in a higher cost for these products. Explains Cavallo, "While drinking cups can be produced at the same rate as traditional plastic cups made of polystyrene, plates and bowls made of PLA are produced at a very low output. In order to have a plate with a certain heat-resistance, you have to crystallize the polymer, which means you have to cool it down slowly, resulting in 50-percent less product in the same time period." He adds that the installation of more efficient cooling equipment can reduce the time it takes to make a plate or bowl from PLA.

NatureWorks PLA applications expand

Ever since NatureWorks, LLC (formerly Cargill Dow, LLC) unveiled its first global-scale manufacturing plant for its NatureWorks(TM) polylactide (PLA) polymers in Blair, NE, in April 2002, packaging applications for the annually renewable plastic resource have sprouted across Europe and have sprung up in the U.S. To learn more about PLA's progression as documented by Packaging Digest, go to: www.packagingdigest.com/info/natureworks

Italian converter ILIP, a division of I.L.P.A. s.r.l (www.ilip.it), Bologna, Italy, supplies all of Coop Italia's PLA-based packaging, including the trays for its cheese products, and the tableware.

The timing of Coop Italia's unveiling of its new PLA tableware could not have been better—spring 2005, on the cusp of the summer alfresco dining season. The timeliness of the launch, coupled with the cooperative's extensive advertising of the new eco-logici products in specialty publications, produced stellar results. Cavallo relates that in their first month on the market, more than 500,000 cups and 400,000 plates and bowls were sold. In the following month, those numbers more than doubled.

Cavallo surmises that the popularity of the products is due to the fact that they are made from a renewable resource—a feature that is becoming ever more desirable to consumers given the world's present dependence on petroleum. "Tableware made from NatureWorks PLA gives consumers a wholesome, natural choice. It is as convenient, sturdy and economical to use as regular plasticware, with the added advantage that it is made from a renewable resource," he says.

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