A small group in Maine that is trying to turn potatoes and wood chips into plastics met for its first annual meeting last Friday to discuss its future. And while the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine is confident it is ushering in a new wave of sustainability and prosperity for Maine, its members acknowledge there are still problems to overcome.
The council, which met at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth and had about 30 attendees, gathered to listen to a talk by Dr. Mark Rossi, the Massachusetts-based research director of Clean Production Action, and to discuss how to turn two of Maine's most important natural resources -- spuds and trees -- into an economic boon for the state.
"We are poised on the edge of a bioplastics revolution," says Mike Belliveau, the executive director of the nonprofit public health agency, Environmental Health Strategy Center, which has offices in Portland and Bangor. He sees a day not too far off in the future when plant-based plastic has replaced petroleum-based plastic.
But because bioplastics are still relatively new, manufacturers are running into a few hiccups with them. The material is mostly designed to biodegrade and be thrown onto a compost pile to decompose with food scraps, or to be industrially composted. But bioplastics can sometimes discolor or degrade too quickly, especially under high temperatures. Also, in 2009, Frito-Lay famously and disastrously launched a biodegradable SunChips bag that it discontinued this fall after customers complained it crumpled too noisily.
"Under normal conditions, the material performs OK," Belliveau says about bioplastics, much of which is made from corn, as well as sugarcane, switchgrass, sugar beets, cassava and other plants. "But the material made from corn is not durable enough or heat resistant enough for all uses, and that is why Maine is really poised to develop these value-added products."
Belliveau says the University of Maine is developing wood and potato-based plastics, and experimenting with blends of the two, which should give the plastic strength, durability and resistance to higher temperatures. And it is this harder substance that holds the greatest market potential, according to Steve Taylor, the program director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center.
"The real, bigger economic value both to manufacturers and the state is in durable goods," Taylor says, "television housings and car panels versus food packaging."
Where we are now
Three years ago, the market share for bioplastics was 1%, but has possibly grown to between 6% and 12% today, and could turn into a $50 billion industry by 2015, according to the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine. Other estimates by experts show the industry at $10 billion by 2020, so projections vary. But the council argues that if Maine companies could capture just 1% of the global bioplastics market, it could boost the economy here by as much as $500 million. "Bioplastics can replace more than 90% of petroleum-based plastic," Belliveau says.
The council is made up of about 50 members representing manufacturers, agricultural groups, nonprofits, technology suppliers and university researchers. Since the council formed, it has raised about $2.5 million, the majority of which has been invested into the University of Maine's efforts to develop a commercial bio-product that could one day replace oil-based plastic. On top of this, the University of Maine's Forest Bioproducts Research Institute in 2008 was awarded $4.8 million from a $50 million R&D state bond approved by voters. Going forward, three new bills have been proposed to continue funding science and technology R&D in Maine, ranging from $50 million to $200 million. A portion of that, if approved, could be used to continue developing bioplastics, Belliveau says.
So far, the University of Maine has successfully extracted and fermented the sugars from potatoes and wood chips, turning them into lactic acid. Belliveau expects that this year, the university will take another step forward and create a polylactic acid pellet, or PLA, the building block for plastic. PLA can be processed into a variety of things, from water bottles to coffee cups and even fabric. Eventually, Belliveau says it may be possible to turn idled Maine industrial infrastructure into lactic-acid plants that could convert potato and wood starch into bioplastics.
Recently, too, Tom's of Maine received a grant of $50,000 from its parent company, Colgate-Palmolive, to partner with the University of Maine and develop a bio-based plastic cap for its mouthwash bottles and other packaging needs, according to Belliveau, a partnership that he says reinforces the commercial viability of Maine-made bioplastics.
Working out the kinks
At the annual meeting, Rossi spoke about the need to create an environmental lifecycle for bioplastics, so that the material is grown sustainably, manufactured cleanly without toxic additives, and then reused, recycled or composted into soil. Rossi also addressed the importance of using certified labels that could describe a product's "biospecs," and alert consumers to its proper disposal treatment, whether that's recycling it, tossing it into the backyard compost or giving it to a commercial composter. "That way, if you met these criteria, you can clearly say your product is environmentally sustainable," he points out.
Business leaders at the meeting talked about the cost benefits of developing bioplastics. Kerem Durdag, the CEO of Biovation in Boothbay, a manufacturer of non-woven fiber products for food packaging and wound care, offered his observation that bioplastics will only succeed if they "are better than what is out there today... We are fooling ourselves that we can just add a sticker," he said. "You better be on the money and be competitive."
Dan Coughlin of ITECS Innovative, a technology consulting company, agreed. "Consumers want a product that has to perform," he told the group. "And most can't pay more."
Yet, Mark Dobrovolny, from Tom's of Maine, said a higher price is not an automatic disincentive. "There are other markets where consumers have an emotional connection to this, and won't hesitate to spend extra," he said. The challenge, he continued, has more to do with getting the consumer to emotionally connect with the product.
Even while performance and logistical problems handicap the rapid proliferation of bioplastics, more and more corporations, such as Whole Foods, DuPont, Coca-Cola and Hewlett-Packard, are looking into how they can use more of them, according to Rossi. Whole Foods is also demanding that its bioplastics be GMO-free, 100% compostable, and non-food based so that the crops being grown for plastic don't compete with food crops, he explained, while DuPont wants to be 80% bio-based by 2018.
Belliveau likens the stage we're at now with bioplastics to the1920s and 1930s, when petroleum-based plastics were being introduced into the market. Back then, however, oil seemed like an infinite resource.
"With the volatility of oil prices, and the assumption that it will just rise in price in the years ahead, there will be a rapidly growing demand for bioplastics," Belliveau predicts, which could mean good things for Maine.