Just One Word: Plastics. OK, Two Words: Better Plastics

By Jonathan Marshall

In the great 1967 film “The Graduate,” young Benjamin famously learns the one-word secret of success: Plastics. “There’s a great future in plastics,” confides his father’s friend, Mr. Maguire.

Technological advances are helping to create better plastics and more recycled plastics.

Hearing that advice at the time, audiences cringed and Benjamin rebelled. But today, a new generation of scientists and entrepreneurs is taking another look at plastics. Benjamin might, too, if he could see how they are working to reduce waste and spare the environment.

The farthest-out idea — under investigation at both the University of Alberta and at Clemson University in South Carolina — is to convert waste parts of dead cows, rendered worthless by fear of mad cow disease, into valuable plastics.

In 1997, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of cattle, sheep and game byproducts to feed farm animals, in order to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. As a result, U.S. meat processors now pay to dispose of billions of pounds of waste.

“We thought we could keep meat and bone meal from being deposited in landfills by using it to make petroleum-free bioplastics,” said Clemson researcher Fehime Vatansever at a meeting this year of the American Chemical Society. The team’s product is particular suited to making tough skis and snowboards.

In Canada as well, meat processors now pay $30 a metric ton to dump animal waste. University of Alberta biochemical engineer David Bressler has found a way to break down their proteins with highly pressurized water and steam, and then reformulate them into industrial plastics. BioRefinex Canada is building a facility capable of doing the necessary processing.

“We’ve been talking with a couple of the big auto parts manufacturers in Canada that sell globally,” Bressler said. “We’re sending them materials and they’re testing it out and giving us feedback on how to modify it.”

Close to home, a West Sacramento company, Micromidas, is figuring out how to convert municipal sewage—which produces 4 million tons of sludge every day — into valuable packaging materials using microbes to convert the chemicals. “Literally, we are brewing plastic,” John Bissell, the company’s CEO, told Silvio Marcacci. “It’s very similar to brewing beer or anything else.”

Last but not least, MBA Polymers, based in Richmond, Calif., has turned years of award-winning research into the world’s largest business recycling mixed plastic waste from durable goods like computers, TVs, refrigerators and cars. The company now has plants in Austria, China and the United Kingdom, each capable of processing tens of thousands of metric tons of mixed and shredded plastic. It claims to save more than 80 percent of the energy required to make new plastic and up to three tons of CO2 for every ton of virgin plastics it replaces with recycled products.

Too bad Benjamin didn’t take Mr. Maguire’s advice. Today he might innovating sustainable bioplastics to help save the environment.

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