Green Bioplastics Closer to Reality
Biodegradable plastics project with Stanford Woods Institute roots wins international award.
Imagine if all the plastic you used – from grocery bags to water bottles – were not only biodegradable but reduced our dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
A project to make uniquely sustainable biodegradable plastics – started with funding from the Stanford Woods Institute and run by Stanford alumni – recently won the Dutch Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a $630,000 international prize for sustainable entrepreneurship. The award was presented Sept. 23 in conjunction with the Clinton Global Initiative (watch video).
Unlike conventional plastics or other biodegradable plastics on the market, these bioplastics will be non-toxic, require no petrochemicals or crops and will naturally break down into a gas which can then be reused to make more bioplastic. If ingested, they pose no harm to animals or people. On top of that, the new bioplastic will be economically competitive with other plastics.
“Our dream is that we could displace a large portion of the plastics market,” said Molly Morse, chief executive officer of Mango Materials. Morse wrote about the project recently in the Huffington Post.
The new plastic is based on a polymer produced by bacteria treated with methane, a gas produced as a byproduct in landfills and sewage treatment plants, among other sources. At the end of its useful life, the plastic biodegrades in an oxygen-free facility to produce methane that can, in turn, be collected to produce biodegradable plastic – a cradle-to-cradle solution. If it breaks down in an oxygen-rich environment, the plastic will create carbon dioxide as any natural material would. By providing an incentive for methane capture, the new plastic would promote sequestration of millions of pounds of the potent greenhouse gas.
Mango Materials’ Stanford alumni include Morse, Bill Shelander, the company’s chief operating officer, and Allison Pieja, its director of technology.
Morse and Pieja started developing the idea as Ph.D. students at Stanford. They worked with Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Craig Criddle, Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated faculty Sarah Billington and Perry McCarty and engineering professor George Springer on research aimed at creating biodegradable building materials. That project was started with funding from Woods’s Environmental Venture Projects (EVP), seed grants for transformative environmental and sustainability research.
As part of that research, Morse looked at a variety of substances – from hemp and flax to sugar and soy – as possible binders for a bacteria-based polymer. The project gained traction when Pieja and Criddle started exploring the use of waste products as binding elements. The eureka moment came in 2005, a year after the EVP project began. “(Criddle) and I realized if we can make it from waste, we can return it to waste,” Pieja said. At a group meeting, Criddle was sketching out a potential process when he stopped and looked at the others with a broad smile. “We can close the loop,” Pieja remembered Criddle saying excitedly. “We can do this.”
Morse and Pieja continued to pursue their bioplastic dream after leaving Stanford. Morse incorporated Mango Materials in 2010. The company has partnered with municipal agencies such as the South Bayside Systems Authority in Redwood City and federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “They really want to find a better use for methane gas,” Morse said. “It’s an under-used resource.”
This past January, Mango Materials received a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant to evaluate the production of bioplastic from waste biogas. Although the company does not yet produce enough material for production as consumer products, they plan to scale up over the next two years will and evaluate potential bioplastic-producing plants near landfills and wastewater treatment plants. They are excited for the future. “We know that this could really change the fate of plastics,” Morse said.
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