From: Phil Porter, The Columbus Dispatch
Published February 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Columbus, Ohio-Based Plastics Firm Finds New Use for Corn

COLUMBUS — A year ago, Plastic Suppliers, which makes the film used in food labels and envelope windows, faced the same problem that dogs most American manufacturers: intense foreign competition.


Experiencing its first cutbacks since its founding in 1949, the company at the time let 85 workers go, leaving it with 143 employees and the need to find a new manufacturing niche.


It found one in a new use for corn resin, whose polylactic acid the company now uses to make plastic film.


Since the 1970s, when Joseph D. Tatum brought his company to Columbus from Blackwood, N.J., Plastic Suppliers had relied on petrochemical resins to make plastic films. But record high oil prices made biochemical resins an economical alternative.


''It was kind of a necessity that we find a new niche,'' said Ted Riegert, president and a 32-year employee.


Riegert said Plastic Suppliers is marketing to companies such as MeadWestvaco, a large paper company based in Massachusetts, as possible steady customers for the new product.


So far, the corn-based film accounts for less than $1 million of Plastic Suppliers' $135 million-per-year sales. Most of the company's products now are made of polystyrene.


The Columbus operation has two side-by-side plants: one that began in 1974; another, in 2000.


The corn residue could grow the company, which hopes the state might invest some of the $10 million the company says it needs to build two more production lines for the corn-based processing. Riegert thinks that the company's current operations might not be able to handle increased demand.


The corn for the film comes from Nebraska.


Its raw kernels are processed into a resin by NatureWorks, a Blair, Neb., chemical plant.


Plastic Suppliers turns the seemingly unlimited raw product into a film.


''It's a heck of a lot easier to grow a bushel of corn than it is to find a barrel of oil,'' said Kathleen Bader, chief executive of NatureWorks.


Riegert projected company total annual sales at $200 million to $400 million if new production lines could be built in one of the company's existing plants.


Melanie Wilt, with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, declined to comment on the potential for state assistance. But she described Plastic Suppliers as a ''value-added agricultural company'' that could ''create jobs for central Ohio.''


Plastic Suppliers is a privately held company with some employee ownership. It has five domestic sales locations and two overseas. It also runs a small manufacturing plant in Belgium.


To see more of The Columbus Dispatch, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.columbusdispatch.com. (c) 2005, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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