March 18, 2010 | last updated December 1, 2011 5:12 am

Potato plastics group pushes for R&D support

Photo/Tom Weber
Photo/Tom Weber
Michael Belliveau of the Environmental Health Strategy center, which is leading the potatoes-to-plastic project

A Bangor-based consortium investigating the possibility of making environmentally safe and sustainable plastics from potatoes and wood chips is asking Maine's congressional delegation to find $1.25 million in federal appropriations that could help commercialize the burgeoning new technology by next year.

The Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine, made up of manufacturers, agricultural groups, nonprofit organizations and University of Maine researchers, is hoping to use the funds to complete the final research and development phase of the technology and begin demonstrating its economic and environmental benefits outside the laboratory. As part of its effort to earn federal appropriations, the organization submitted a video about its project to Rep. Chellie Pingree, which is now featured on her website among a list of others.

"Our aim right now is to attract commercial investment to a technology that could really boost Maine's rural economy and create good, green manufacturing jobs here," says Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a nonprofit public health organization that made the appropriations request on behalf of the bioplastics council.

The idea of turning Maine potatoes into eco-friendly plastics first took root back in 2004, when InterfaceFABRIC, a Guilford-based company now known as True Textiles Inc., began using a form of plastic resin made from corn starch in the manufacture of some of its dyed, woven fabrics.

In the interest of broadening its market, and eventually moving away from the use of genetically modified corn from the Midwest, the company began examining the possibility of using starch from Maine potatoes and potato waste instead. Potato starch, which is already being produced in Maine, could be fermented to make the plastic resin called polylactic acid, or PLA.

Intrigued by the marketing possibilities of the new green chemistry, other businesses soon signed on to the exploratory effort, which now includes True Textiles, the Aroostook Starch Co., Rynel Inc., Tom's of Maine, the Maine Potato Board, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, the University of Maine's Process Development Center and the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Belliveau says the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine, which was incorporated last year, has raised $2 million from state and local funding over the last three years to advance the R&D of potato-based PLAs.

"This is the future of where the economy and the environment needs to go," says Belliveau. "We're surrounded by plastics everywhere we look, and we should be making them from plant-based sources instead of petroleum-based sources. At this point, our next step in the process is to work with UMaine chemical engineers to demonstrate that we can make PLA cost effectively from potatoes, potato waste and wood chips."

According to an economic impact analysis by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, Maine could reap significant benefits by growing the raw materials, processing the potato-based PLA, and using the bioplastics in the manufacture of a variety of products that include packaging, bottles and fabrics.

The production of the biopolymer PLA could create more than 850 permanent jobs, according to the policy center's statistics, including 150 in manufacturing as well as nearly 1,800 temporary construction-related jobs over two years.

Belliveau says he hopes eventually to turn idled Maine industrial infrastructure into lactic-acid plants that could make the potato-based starch and process it into its bioplastics form.

In a survey of 1,000 Maine businesses that use heavy plastics, more than 90% of the respondents says they would use bioplastics if they were available, and two-thirds says they would pay a premium for plastics made from Maine potatoes.

"Right now about 99% of plastics are petro-chemical based, with the other 1% bio-based, but the bioplastics market is growing at a double-digit rate," says Belliveau, whose public health center recently received a $500,000 Maine Technology Institute Cluster Initiative Award.

"Our goal is to produce increasingly sustainable materials, and we would definitely like to see it happen right here in Maine," says Stacie Beyer, corporate environmental manager for True Textiles of Guilford. "That would be quite the story."

May Mitchell, the marketing programs manager for Rynel Inc., a consortium member that manufactures specialty foam in Wiscasset, says her company is interested in learning more about how bioplastics might possibly be used one day in making absorbent wound-care products and medical devices.

"We have products that would fit right into that mix, so we'd really like to see a project like this succeed," says Jim Baressi, vice president of Aroostook Starch Co. in Fort Fairfield, which produces potato starches for a variety of food and technical applications. "Right now, though, it's just a good idea, and we'll have to wait to find out the economical value of it. But the most important part of any research project like this is that people are working diligently to create new jobs here and get the economy moving. We need all the help we can get."


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