China | China tries to cure corn hangover with plastic bags, plates
Eat bitter: headline real rates of GDP are hiding the true picture for China's agricultural sector. Photo: Reuters
Eat bitter: headline real rates of GDP are hiding the true picture for China's agricultural sector. Photo: Reuters

China tries to cure corn hangover with plastic bags, plates

Plans to get rid of a massive corn stockpile by using it for a fledgling biogradeable plastics industry could be a game changer for private factories

January 27, 2017 8:54 AM (UTC+8)

Plans to get rid of a massive corn stockpile by using it as raw material for a fledgling biogradeable plastics industry could be a game changer for Changchun Shengda Biomaterial and other private factories in China’s corn belt.

After buying corn for years to support farmers, Beijing must find a way to work off a stockpile so big it could feed China’s 1.4 billion people for more than a year.

The government reckons the cure for its longstanding headache could be in promoting the nation’s polylactide (PLA) sector, which turns corn starch and cassava into biodegradable plastic products like bags and plates.

China’s state grain bureau announced the strategy in a five-year policy document at the end of December, which also included a push to increase ethanol output and use of the grain as livestock feed.

The council didn’t give details of how it would implement the plan, which has the potential to boost corn prices at a time of a global glut.

Still, the policy marks a significant shift for the government and its food-security fixation, which has long made it reluctant to promote the non-food use of grains in a country that endured three years of famine in 1958-61. It also illustrates how the corn mountain – and a market soaked in bumper US crops – is forcing policymakers into new territory.

If successful, a nationwide industry would help whittle down the corn inventory, built up after a decade of government buying from farmers to support incomes and ensure food for the growing, urban population.

Corn price forecast for 2016-2020
It could in the long term upend the niche global market for biodegradeable plastics, challenging established PLA players like NatureWorks LLC, a joint venture between Cargill and PTT Global Chemical, which sells into China. China could export PLA products, too.

Total global output of PLA products is expected to rise to 800,000 metic tons by 2020, from 200,000 metric tons in 2012, according to China Research & Intelligence in Shanghai. Half of that would be in Asia.

Some experts, however, have questioned whether focusing on polylactide is the answer to China’s corn woes, saying it would take too long, with too much cash and still would not use up enough corn to make much of a dent in the stockpile.

Jilin’s new industry

Jilin, the nation’s second-largest corn growing province, is providing a blueprint for how the policy could take shape.

In a bid to revive its slowing economy, the province has been attempting to build and finance a new industry, investing public money to coax eight companies to make products from PLA such as plastic bags and plates.

Changchun Shengda, a unit of privately owned Huasheng Material Tech Group is one of them. Its experiences offer an insight into the challenges facing the smaller, private companies.

A harvester unloads corn to a cargo truck at a farm in Gaocheng, Hebei province, China, September 30, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
A harvester unloads corn to a cargo truck at a farm in Gaocheng, Hebei province, China, September 30, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The company set up shop in Jilin’s provincial capital in 2014, lured by free rent at three new industrial parks and other perks, including 33 million yuan (US$4.8 million) in subsidies.

With the original benefits now expiring, Changchun Shengda is having to move to a smaller factory within the same park, which will cost around 820,000 yuan a year in rent.

With production costs rising amid limited demand for its products, Changchun Shengda is now cutting costs to survive.

Changchun Shengda buys PLA raw material from NatureWorks, said the company’s general manager Zhang Guangjun.

He reckons the grain bureau’s new drive to create a nationwide PLA industry could offer a lifeline by reducing the costs of the raw materials.

Domestic output of PLA raw material would help reduce reliance on costlier imports.

“We still have to play it by ear. [But] the industry can’t develop without policy support,” Zhang said.

China doesn’t make PLA from scratch, although state-controlled Cofco has a joint venture with Anhui HengXing that expects to open a 10,000 metric ton per year polymerization plant by the end of this year.

That could be expanded to as much as 200,000 metric tons per year by the end of 2018, said Qian Houxiang, general production manager of Jilin Cofco Biomaterials Co Ltd.

Too long, too little

It takes about three metric tons of corn to make one metric ton of PLA. Based on China’s current PLA capacity, that means it would take almost 400 years to work off the corn stockpile.

“Making plastics out of corn is like quenching the fire of a cartload of firewood with one cup of water,” said Feng Lichen, president of Yumi.com, corn industry website based in Dalian, Liaoning province.

After abandoning its corn security policy in 2016, the government sold off some of its old inventory but still has more than 200 million metric tons in warehouses, according to some estimates. Much of it is poor quality and not fit for human consumption.

Removing that overhang from a bloated global market could create additional demand for corn outside China and boost prices.

That, however, assumes in part that China makes a success out of its new biodegradeable plastics industry.

At 40 to 50 US cents a bag, twice the price of regular plastic bags, it’s a challenge to get supermarkets to use biodegradable ones. Public awareness of the environmental damage from making regular plastic bags is limited outside of major cities.

Jilin, which banned production and use of plastic bags in 2014, has pioneered what could become a model for other regions to follow, experts said.

Other local governments in the corn belt, from Jiangsu to Hainan, are considering following suit, industry insiders say.

The domestic market for biodegradable plastic could eventually be as big as 2 million to 3 million metric tons per year if Beijing banned the use of normal plastic, said Cofco’s Qian.

Some Cofco products have been certified for sale in the United States and Europe, giving the company the potential to export, he said.

“Oil-based products have more than a century of history, but PLA only has about 20 years. There is a lot of work to be done,” Qian said.

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