Is Plastic from Plants a Pollution Solution? - Part One
Could the future of the plastics industry be taking place just forty miles north of Tallahassee? A new company in South Georgia is gearing up to produce plastics from plants.
If you've ever seen the movie "The Graduate", you've got to remember the party scene where family friend Mr. McGuire gives the new grad, played by Dustin Hoffman, some career advice. He told the young man that plastics offered him a great future.
Plastics were a hot field in the late 1960s. But fast-forward almost fifty years and there are those who now consider plastics - made almost totally from petroleum - to be a bane as well as a boon. But - as another 60s icon Bob Dylan sang - the "times they are a-changing." At least, they seem to be at MHG, a new factory located in an industrial park just off U.S. 27 north of Bainbridge, Georgia. That's where MHG Chief Operating Officer Michael Smith was giving a tour of the facility and describing what the plant is gearing up to produce.
“It is a completely bio-degradable plastic,” he said stepping into a cavernous room full of complicated looking machinery and great, gleaming tanks that soared upwards to the ceiling. “Also renewable in that it comes from vegetable oils, like canola or soybean oil. But what we’re looking at here is the facility that makes it, so you’ve got fermenters, you’ve got stainless steel reactors and tanks, pipes, valves and sensors, all the things that are necessary to take vegetable oil and our bacteria that eat the vegetable oil that produce the polymer.”
Smith used to work for BP, so his background is petroleum-based plastic. He says a key concept of plant-based plastic is sourcing the raw material close to the production process.
“We take canola seed from local farmers and we crush that seed into oil. We then take that oil and feed it to the bacteria, so we vertically integrate back to the local farmers,” he explained.
Actually, some plastic has been made from plants since the days of Henry Ford. But it's been more expensive than petro-plastic. Smith said MHG's process has narrowed that price difference to the vanishing point.
“Now the facility that you’re looking at is obviously our pilot scale and the cost per pound here would be more expensive than somebody making billions of pounds. We’ll get there one day. But the total market is 660-billion pounds of plastic worldwide per year, and you’re looking at a facility that can do about 30-million pounds once we get everything scaled up.”
MHG has its own in-house laboratory and research staff.
“We’ve got 9 PhDs on staff and what you’re looking at is one of the analytical labs,” he said, standing in front of a large window into a room full of testing equipment and people in white lab coats.
Smith said, by adjusting the plastic formulation, they can program the product to bio-degrade, in air or water, anywhere from days to years. Even before full production is underway, Smith said some big customers are lining up for the product and the potential for bio-plastic is nearly unlimited.
“At least 330-billion pounds and that’s a lot. We had one company that makes bottles – and I’m not giving names – they told me they make one-billion bottles per day. And I said, ‘You mean million,’ and he said, ‘No, BILLION!’ and that’s just one bottle company.”