Mountain Equipment Co-Op had what you might call an ethical dilemma.
The national retailer of outdoor recreation products, a 34-year-old organization that prides itself on being eco-friendly and embracing sustainability, was going through half a million plastic bags a year across its 10-store chain.
Like most plastic bags, the ones from MEC were largely ending up in landfills, often blowing away or at risk of being fatally ingested by birds and marine animals. Those that get buried can take up to 1,000 years to break down.
Late last year MEC decided to do something about it. The retailer struck a deal with BioBag Canada Inc., the Canadian partner for Norway’s Polar Gruppen AS, and committed to replacing all disposable shopping bags at its stores (with the exception of Halifax) with “natural” plastic bags made from non-genetically modified corn.
The new bags, which the company says cost “several times” more than regular plastic bags, are produced with less energy and will break down in a landfill — or home composter — within four to 12 weeks.
“We determined that the ecological advantages of the BioBags — compostability and biodegradability — outweighed the higher costs,” says Tim Southam, spokesperson for MEC. “Leadership on that front requires considerations beyond financial ones.”
Plastic bags are basically polymers derived from crude oil and natural gas. They began to emerge in the 1960s as sandwich and trash bags, but are now one of the most ubiquitous items on the planet. Each year, several trillion plastic bags are churned out of factories — again, most ending their life in a landfill.
So-called biopolymers or “natural plastics” have been around since the days of Henry Ford, who initially used soybeans to make car parts, but the low cost of oil has made it difficult for the alternative to gain a foothold in the marketplace.
Enter the age of $70 (U.S.) crude oil. The high cost of that gooey black stuff, combined with improved manufacturing processes and R&D breakthroughs, has led to the realization that agricultural commodities are poised to be an important feedstock for the future of plastics-based industries.
Suddenly, a corny idea is being taken seriously. Within a few years, the premium MEC and others are paying for their biodegradable shopping bags could be erased for good.
“The same carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in oil are in plants,” says Maurice Bitran, director of research and innovation with Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture.
“Oil is just plants that were under the ground for millions of years. The idea is you can save those millions of years and go directly to the plants,” adds Bitran. “Given that the cost of energy and the environmental imperatives are increasing, the research that has been done is starting to pay some dividends.”
Sensing an opportunity in the market, agricultural processing giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. formed an alliance in 2004 with Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech firm Metabolix Inc., which uses microbes as part of a proprietary fermentation process that converts corn sugar into a broad range of plastics — everything from plastic films and coatings to utensils and other moulded products.
In March, Archer Daniels announced that it would build a commercial plant in Clinton, Iowa, that would produce 45,000 tonnes of natural plastics annually, using Metabolix’s technology and a neighbouring corn mill to supply the starch feedstock. (Cf. news of Febr. 15, 2006.)
“This plant will make the resin materials that will be used to make the actual finished product,” says Jim Woll, a manager at Archer Daniels who is overseeing the new plant.
Once up and running in 2008, the plant will be the first in the United States to commercially offer a broad family of natural plastics that are durable and can break down easily in compost piles and marine environments.
But Metabolix isn’t resting its laurels on Archer Daniels. The company also has a strategic alliance with British Petroleum, which is working on processes that would use fast-growing switchgrass as a raw material for producing natural plastics. The business case is already there with $70 oil, but the key now is to move toward high-volume production that can take advantage of economies of scale.
Great news for corn farmers. “It will provide an outlet for agricultural production that doesn’t exist at the moment,” says Bitran.
Chemical titan Dupont is also getting into the bioplastics game, and already produces 10 per cent of its products without petrochemicals. But unlike Archer Daniels, it’s not aiming for the noble goal of biodegradability. Dupont is more interested in making products that have superior features and quality than those based on oil and gas.
Its patented Sorona polymer, for example, can be made with 40 per cent biomaterial that’s based on fermented and purified corn sugar. The final product, which goes into textiles and carpeting, may not break down in a composter but does dramatically lower Dupont’s dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuels. (Cf. news of Nov. 23, 2005.}
Quality also improves. Carpets, for example, hold colours much better, and are naturally UV and stain resistant.
“We’ve known how to make it for about 40 years, but we could never do it at a price-point that made sense,” says DuPont spokesperson Michelle Reardon. “One that we talk about in the pipeline is a material that would be 100 per cent bio-based that would be used in the electronics industry to make semiconductor chips.”
For DuPont the innovation doesn’t end with plastics. By tinkering with the biology and programming proteins from plants, Reardon said it’s possible to design a bio-based nail polish with a mind of its own. “You could dip your whole hand in the nail polish, pull it out, and it would only stick to the nails.”
Another possibility is hair dye that washes in like shampoo but only colours the hair. It would stay on permanently until you wash it out with a natural substance such as lemon juice.
“We think that’s something consumers are going to be interested in,” she says.
In Ontario, there are a number of research efforts underway at universities in Guelph, Toronto and Kingston that are exploring ways to blend fibres from plants and crops into plastic automotive and building materials.
The goal would be to offset the use of fossil fuels in the manufacturing of these products while finding a market for Ontario farmers.
One project at the University of Toronto involved the use of microscopic fungi to strengthen plant fibre, with the goal of developing durable car parts.
Bitran says high-end cars being manufactured in Europe are already using such parts. “But with the prices of oil and more R&D that makes the processes inexpensive, I think this is going to make it more economically viable.”
But will we have enough corn? Can our existing agricultural resources support the transition away from fossil fuels?
Plastic is only the start. In Ontario and around the globe, mandates for ethanol production are already creating a market for corn and other crops in the rush to become less dependent on oil.
Bitran isn’t so concerned — initially, at least — that the rush to develop bioplastics and ethanol will require the mass planting of dedicated crops, or divert resources away from growing food.
He says farmers are distressed because there’s too much supply on the market. The corn exists, and the challenge is to find a better home for it.
“It’s about moving agricultural production up the value chain, so the effect on the economy is positive.”
Source: The Star May 08, 2006.