Bioplastics Man

Power Player / by Maywa Montenegro /

Biochemist Oliver Peoples explains how his polymer-producing microbes could transform the plastics industry and why both oceans and landfills will benefit.

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Seed: Speaking of industrial scale, how will the new Clinton factory change your business?
OP: So the bottom line is: Metabolix is a technology company. In order to make a material like a bioplastic, you really need to have a large-scale operation and integration with infrastructure. Frankly, it costs a lot of money to build one of these plants. So after we had proven the technology, from the basic science all the way to the market opportunity, we structured a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland Company. We’re now finishing construction on a facility for the first 50,000 tons of capacity at Clinton, Iowa, at the same site as their large corn wet mill. It has all of the feedstock as well as the energy to run our process.

Seed: So you’re turning corn into plastic in much the same way that the ethanol industry turns it into biofuels. As I’m sure you know, the big criticism of corn ethanol has been that if you account for all of the embedded fossil fuels, it doesn’t wind up being very good for the environment. How does this play out with Mirel?
OP: Grain ethanol has been around for more than 100 years, so the industry’s ability to shift the process to a more favorable energy balance is limited. A good illustration is polypropylene: The energy cost of making it when they first started was probably 10 to 20 times what it is today. This is typically what happens with any manufacturing technology—you get continuous improvements as you learn how to do it better and better. Ethanol has largely been through that cycle. Mirel plastics are still in their early days, but even with our initial start-up we’ve been able to manage the manufacturing of Mirel to make sure that it has an attractive greenhouse gas profile. We are pretty confident that it’s going to get better and better.

I understand that Mirel can degrade in the ocean. Is that unique, or do most bioplastics decompose in water?
OP: It depends. Starch and cellulose will degrade in the ocean, but they make lousy plastic. Other biodegradable plastics will degrade in hot water, but the ocean is not exactly hot, and neither are most other natural aqueous environments. Mirel gives the same performance as a petroleum resin but also biodegrades at both hot and cool water temperatures.

Seed: But if it does decompose in water, you can’t make cups or any other liquid-holding containers out of it, can you?
Actually, you can take a bottle of Mirel, fill it with shampoo and keep it for five years. Mirel is unique in that it requires an active microbial environment in order to decompose. It’s degraded by the microbes in water, or in the sediment in the bottom of the water, as well as by microbes in soil and in compost.

You’ve recently signed a major deal with a company that makes compost bags. Why the focus on compost?
OP: The idea is municipal composting. In places like San Francisco—extremely built-up areas with not a lot of places for individuals to compost—there’s been a lot of interest in citywide composting. Of course, nobody wants to have potato peelings, apple cores, and chopped up carrots lying on the floor; you want to put it in a container so it can get collected. But if that bag is not compostable, you have a problem at the other end. With Mirel, you can collect all your food waste, and then it can be picked up curbside and taken to an industrial composting facility.

We’ve also recently signed agreements with Newell Rubbermaid and with Pharma Filter BV to make disposable products for hospital use. At this point, we’re really trying to demonstrate the breadth of end-use applications for Mirel.

Seed: Where would you like to see Metabolix 10 years from now?
The Clinton site was selected by Archer Daniels Midland because it has the land and feedstock supply to support a facility that’s roughly four times the size of the one being installed now. So I’d like to see that larger facility completely built, sold out, and profitable. I’d like to see a second facility somewhere else in the world operating. Finally, I’d like to see crop-based PHA bioplastics also being commercialized.

Crop-based bioplastics? You mean that you’d engineer living plants to produce plastic?
OP: We actually have created transgenic plants that produce this plastic. Think about it this way: Starch is the largest volume, lowest cost polymer in the world. It’s produced by corn, potatoes, wheat—a whole range of crops. It’s cheap because agricultural production is very efficient. So what we’ve done, essentially, is combine two biological processes. By taking the genetic systems from the microorganisms that make Mirel and transferring them into plant systems, we get plants that make bioplastic. For feedstock, we’re focusing on switchgrass, a non-food crop. We also have a program on sugar cane and another on industrial oil seeds. But they’re still in laboratory phase.

Originally published November 10, 2009

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