Complementary Strategies For Success

Someday, cattle may be able to have distillers grains and eat the container too, thanks to a plastics ingredient manufacturer and feed company.
By Chris Hanson | June 05, 2014

The growing use of dried distillers grains as a feed additive is a subject producers hear about on a regular basis. But what about producing plastic feed containers using distillers grains-based resin enhancers, perhaps even making the whole container edible in the future? Enter SweetPro and Laurel BioComposite LLC, who are developing ways to make it happen.

A 20-year veteran of the feed industry, SweetPro has been evolving toward incorporating more biodegradable materials into the containers for its distillers grains feed supplement products. “We’re down to a point now where two-thirds of our container is biodegradable, but the bottom third was not,” explains Bob Thornberg, president of SweetPro. “So we had a very significant interest in things that will move us in that direction to minimize plastic when we can.”

Laurel BioComposite LLC made the first move around last fall and contacted SweetPro with a proposal. The Laurel, Neb., company produces trademarked Bio-Res powder and pellets from distillers grains, which can be blended with resins for plastic production, replacing traditional petroleum-based resins. “When Laurel BioComposite called and said that they have something based on distillers grains and can inject it into plastic, I thought, ‘Good grief, this is almost too good,’” Thornberg recalls. “We’re a distillers grains-based company, if you will. If there are things we can use for biodegradability and distiller grains in our packaging, that’s even better. When they called with the concept, I was ready.”
The first prototype Laurel BioComposite created for SweetPro was remarkable, Thronberg says. “We’ve done wheat-based and corn-based biodegradable components and other containers have been too brittle or had limitations with biodegradability,” he says. “When we tested it in sub-zero weather—we pounded on it, jumped on it—it held up every bit as well as the other basis.”

Price was a key concern, says Tim Bearnes, CEO of Laurel BioComposite. “If you look at using bio-resins to replace traditional resins, the challenges are that you have to make a product that is compatible with traditional plastics and maintain acceptable properties and processes as well, and you have to do that at a fair and reasonable cost point,” he says. “So we went into the whole project understanding that people are very interested in renewable and sustainable materials, but, in general, consumers are not willing to pay more for that sustainability piece.” 

The resulting product was biodegradable and durable and comes with a potentially attractive price. “We were able to do it with no cost implications to the producer,” Thornberg says.

By late April, roughly a semi-trailer load of the containers was waiting at one of SweetPro’s distributors, Montana- based, Agri-Best Feeds, for some initial trial runs. “I would think we would have some pretty good feedback within a couple months or less,” Thornberg says. “But we’re not expecting much more than confirmation on what we have seen so far.”

The material has one characteristic that companies will keep a close eye on in the trial run. “There is a bit of an odor issue that we want to see if it is off-putting for cattle and if it influences their intake,” he says. If the odor does not affect intake, which it is not expected to, then the product will be on route to greater production, he adds. “You always want to be sure you checked everything.” 

If all the field testing comes back positive and there are no unforeseen challenges, the distillers grain bins could become available on the mass market relatively soon. Perhaps even by this winter but certainly within a calendar year, Thornberg says.

“We’ve done a lot of work on developing and testing and we have pretty good in-house capabilities for product development, Bearnes adds, “so it’s not like they are taking a huge amount of risk to try it.”

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]