Plastic's Second Act

BASF's biodegradable plastic, Ecoflex.

BASF's biodegradable plastic, Ecoflex. Courtesy BASF.

With the product in hand the team developed a business plan. While the plastic was manufactured using existing infrastructure, a new product team was in charge of sales and of building new customer relationships. A key element in BASF’s approach was collaboration with standard-setting agencies and associations that certify products as biodegradable. According to standards negotiated in Germany and then applied across Europe and in the United States, a compound classifies as biodegradable if it converts to carbon dioxide, water, and biomass via microbial action. The key metric for producers is the conversion of 90% of the organic carbon to CO2 in less than 180 days. Ecoflex achieves this in 80 days.

For BASF, certification proved important to the Ecoflex brand. Each certification required paying fees for external laboratory analysis of the material and for the administrative costs of the certification organizations. In exchange the company could use certification logos in advertising and on brochures. The credibility of Ecoflex—understood by BASF product managers as critical in its marketing—was underpinned by involvement with both standards agencies and voluntary certification schemes. Helping customers and consumers distinguish the category of “green” products from other materials was as important, if not more important, as differentiating a specific product from its competitors.

By the end of 1998 Ecoflex appeared poised for growth. Government policies were driving the construction of new large-scale compost facilities and the separation of waste streams. Standards and certification schemes were in place, promoting awareness among downstream plastic-bag and thin-film producers that new products were available. But the limitations of current technology and consumers who did not properly separate plastic waste proved a major hurdle to Ecoflex’s success. To BASF’s disappointment, the new largescale compost facilities could not differentiate an Ecoflex bag from plastic bags that would not degrade. Such facilities use large fans to blow lightweight materials like plastic bags out of the waste stream before composting; plastics are then separated and either sent to plastics recycling facilities or to landfills. In landfills Ecoflex does not break down in the same way as in large-scale compost facilities. Like other biodegradable plastics, Ecoflex must be removed from recycling processes that convert plastic bottles and packaging into such products as carpeting and polyester fibers or back into containers. Rather than fitting a niche with precision, Ecoflex faced a significant roadblock as a result of unpredictable consumer behavior and compost-facility removal of plastics from the degradable waste stream.

In the face of this challenge BASF reoriented its marketing to focus on two different kinds of end users. In addition to concentrating on supermarkets and individuals buying plastic bags, the firm built sales among farmers who use plastic sheeting to prevent weed growth and to trap moisture in the soil. Farmers can plow the sheeting back into the field after harvest and allow it to compost naturally over time. Ecoflex will not break down in the short timeframe of a sophisticated compost facility but will decompose in a field over four to six months. A second market emerged among organic-food packagers, who were willing to pay a premium to promote packaging along with their specialty produce. This food packaging will also break down, though over a longer timeframe, in large landfills.