In July, 1991, Robert Petcavich amused reporters in San Diego by tossing a degradable plastic cup into a bowl filled with goldfish. As Petcavich talked to reporters, the material slowly dissolved, turning the bowl's crystal-clear water into a cloudy soup.
The goldfish kept on swimming, proof that the proprietary plastic material degrades in an environmentally safe manner, Petcavich said.
Petcavich now acknowledges that the demonstration was more of a circus sideshow than proof that his proprietary technology represented a viable way to reduce waste. But the sideshow/press conference drew the desired attention from potential investors and customers.
He's yet to land a contract with a goods manufacturer that will incorporate his proprietary plastics. But he did found Planet Technologies, a privately held company that attracted $2.4 million in funding through a recent stock offering. About 50 private individuals made the investments.
The company is operating a small plastics manufacturing plant in its 6,000-square-foot Scripps Ranch headquarters and is shipping small batches of its proprietary products to interested manufacturers for quality-control testing.
Ebara Environmental Corp., a Pittsburgh-based subsidiary of a Japanese industrial processes company, recently confirmed that one of the plastics developed by Planet Technologies degrades naturally when composted along with food waste or "green" waste such as grass clippings.
And Petcavich has begun to lay the groundwork for a public offering, most likely in about two years.
When it comes to public offerings by small companies with proprietary processes, Planet Technologies isn't alone, observers said.
"There will be more and more public offerings considered" by small companies working on degradable plastics technologies during coming years, said George Makrauer, chairman of the Degradable Plastics Society, and president of Amko Plastics, a Cincinnati-based plastics products manufacturer.
The society, which was formed in 1989 and has 22 members, recently joined forces with the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry, a major trade organization. The alliance gave the Degradable Plastics Society "mainstream recognition," Makrauer said.
That kind of credibility is needed, Makrauer said, because many U.S. firms are balking at the idea of degradable plastics.
Recently, three "highly respectable" companies agreed to join the degradable products trade group "if they could do it without their names showing up on the membership list," Makrauer said. The firms evidently were afraid that the new technologies could make their existing product lines obsolete.
Some domestic companies are hesitant to support research, but in Japan, trade officials are working to ensure that their nation assumes a leading role as the fledgling industry develops.
In 1990, Japanese government officials organized a consortium of 40 chemical, plastic and biotechnology companies that began research into degradable plastics technologies. That consortium now includes more than 100 members.
"There is an unquenched thirst for this subject in Japan," said Makrauer, who will address members of the Japanese consortium in November. "If this technology is not given an opportunity to grow by U.S. firms, (consumers) will end up buying the finished products from Japan."
That's not to say all U.S. companies are intent upon avoiding research into plastics that, after coming in contact with water, sunlight or other catalysts, degrade naturally, generating no toxic remains.
Planet Technologies has received inquiries from nearly 200 companies, including many domestic concerns, that have expressed an interest in its proprietary plastics. "Serious discussions" are under way with about 40 companies that manufacture consumer goods, medical and dental products, packaging and myriad other products, Petcavich said.
Makrauer said there is "plenty of room" for different technologies because "there is no one product or technology that is suitable" for every purpose.
One technology might be appropriate for products that are destined for landfills, and others might be suitable for products that will be recycled, incinerated or composted, Makrauer said.
Planet Technologies took what Petcavich described as a major step recently when it submitted one of its proprietary plastics to Ebara Environmental Corp. for testing.
Ebara, which manufactures equipment for large-scale composting operations, determined that Planet Technologies' plastic seems to be compatible with food wastes or garbage and sludge that, after composting, are used for agriculture and landscaping applications.
"In my own opinion, (Petcavich) has got a product that does have a fit in society," said Ebara Environmental Corp. President Norman Frank. "He's not there yet, but he's on the way."
Frank said that Planet Technologies' plastic would be appropriate for a number of applications, most notably, restaurants that now discard plastic dinnerware but use composting devices to turn leftover food into a soil product.
With a degradable plastic, "you don't have to scrape off the food, but can throw in the whole plate, the fork, the knife and the cup. . . . It can all be returned to the earth," Frank said.
Although Petcavich wouldn't discuss specifics, he said a major theme park is experimenting with dinnerware supplied by Planet Technologies.