Wade Groetsch became president of a small Florida-based company, Noble Juice, in 1999. The family-owned business, founded in 1927, was making tangerine juice and a little money.
Today, the former Minnesotan oversees a 12-item product line in a company that has shown double-digit growth in eight of the last 10 years. As a private company Noble does not report its earnings, but Groetsch said annual sales are now in the $16 million to $20 million range.
He’s doing it with green packaging, hitting the shelves at a time when consumers are looking (and paying a premium for) anything organic/natural/petroleum-free.
Groetsch claims the Noble Juice product line is the first in the nation to be almost entirely packaged in compostable materials. The bottle and even the label are made from cornstarch in a process refined by Cargill. “Everything but the cap, and we are working on the cap,” he said.
Noble Juice, based in Winter Haven, Fla., is on the shelves in Wal-Mart, Publix and Kroger stores. Wal-Mart executives suggested the non-fossil fuel containers.
In the highly competitive juice market, the polylactic acid (PLA) packaging sets his business apart.
“As a small company, we are always looking for a point of difference,” said Groetsch, whose parents live in the Avon-Albany area of Minnesota.
PLA bottles (sometimes called e-bottles) are advertised to be an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics. Manufacturers say that PLA products can be composted in an industrial facility; they do not claim the container will decompose in your backyard bin or the county landfill, which is too cold. Some research has shown that the material can be thrown in the PET and HDPE plastics recycling streams.
The material is most often made from cornstarch or sugar cane. The process has been known for years but only relatively recently used in packaging. Other applications with PLA or its variations are clothing, microwavable trays and engineering plastics.
PLA is more expensive than many petroleum-derived plastics, and its price is in flux; production increases have pushed costs downward, but raw material demands are soaring along with the price of corn. Wayzata-based Cargill’s subsidiary NatureWorks is among the largest PLA producers in the world.
You may have seen media attention to plastic bottles recently in the controversy over bisphenol A. BPA is a compound found in polycarbonate plastics such as Nalgene bottles, baby bottles and cans. Some studies have shown that it can cause endocrine problems in lab rats. Nalgene has responded by marketing its new Choice line as BPA free.
Bob Peoples, director of the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute, said “PLA is based on fermentation of glucose and so it is quite reasonable as long as we can secure cheap glucose from renewables such as cellulose. I don’t think that it is any better in the process energy to make it relative to other polymers (classic processing technology), but it avoids the initial barrel of oil to make it.”