Molding the Future

Vancouver-based Rex Plastics Inc. sees big future in biopolymers

Once, there was just one word: "plastics."

Four decades after the release of the Hollywood film "The Graduate," Vancouver-based Rex Plastics Inc. has cashed in on the advice given to Dustin Hoffman's character.

Now the company is thinking about getting its hands dirty with a current buzzword: "compost."

Rex, a custom injection molding manufacturer, sees potential in a type of plastic called biopolymers. Rich Clark, president of Rex Plastics explained biopolymers are plastics made from farmed materials such as corn, wheat, sugar cane and other starches. These biopolymers often resemble petroleum-based plastics, but depending on their design, may be compostable or biodegradable.

"Biopolymers could probably replace more plastics than most people realize," Clark said. "They can be used for durable products as well."

However, some experts warn calling something compostable doesn't mean it actually is, and they caution manufacturers like Rex to look closely at the data behind the materials they use.

Clark said certain biopolymers have been tested at his company, but they haven't produced any molds using the materials for customers.

"It's an emerging technology that we're trying to be on the forefront of," Clark said. "We feel confident that we can mold and process it."
Clark believes the shift toward compostable and biodegradable products is driven by customer demand; the public doesn't want to overload landfills.

"Consumers are under the notion that more and more is a real problem," Clark said. "I think that is more consumer-driven than supplier or manufacturer-driven, unlike other green energy that is driven by political forces."

Clark's company was launched in 1971 by his father, Rex. Clark now runs the firm alongside his brother and two cousins. The company employs about 20 people, according to Clark, and has annual revenues between $2 and $5 million.

Rex offers a full-service machine shop to customers seeking the fabrication of a product or the development of an invention. Depending on the customer's need, Rex can create custom molds that use any of approximately 70,000 different grades of plastic.
The innovative company starts by building a prototype and documenting each step of the testing process. Once the prototype is approved by the customer, Rex can replicate the approach.

"[Our responsibility] is to make sure that a mold is produced to make a part that is dimensionally right," said Clark. "[We also] make sure the raw material is dried and processed properly."

In 12 to 18 months Rex may also produce food packaging for an undisclosed company. That firm, Clark said, will offer its own proprietary blend of biodegradable plastics.

It should be noted, biodegradable and compostable do not mean the same thing. As a biodegradable plastic breaks down into nature, it may leave additional materials behind. Compostables, on the other hand, typically leave behind just water, carbon dioxide and biomass. Clark said his company is prepared to mold both types of products.

Industry publications have been talking about bio-based products with increasing frequency in recent years. Such materials, like cornstarch-derived biopolymers, are now widely available and being tested at Rex. The company also purchased some materials from Cereplast – a publicly-traded manufacturer of biopolymers based in California – to test whether they could be offered as alternatives to customers.

Clark said many plastics can also be injected with an additive called Ecopure. The additive's manufacturer, New Mexico-based Bio-Tec Environmental, claims ecopure renders plastic biodegradable when exposed to moisture. However, not everyone is on board with that claim.

"We've never seen any data to show that traditional plastics will fully biodegrade when Ecopure additives are used in them," said Steve Mojo, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI).

BPI certifies compostable products and biodegradability using standards set by ASTM International (originally known as the American Society of Testing Materials).

A truly compostable product, Mojo explained, will break down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass in an aerobic environment (one with oxygen). In an environment without oxygen, the product will decompose into methane.

Mojo said only a small portion of materials are typically broken down in products with additives like Ecopure. That's not enough to meet ASTM's specifications of at least 90 percent of a product breaking down to be called compostable.

Not all additives have to do with biotechnology. Clark said Rex may buy grades of plastics with other additives, such as UV stabilizers for a product that will be in the sun or flame retardants for a product that may be exposed to heat.

Ultimately, Rex Plastics molds products based on customer specifications.

"We're open to anything that's processable," Clark said. "About the only thing we actually add here is color."