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Is Plastic from Plants a Pollution Solution - Part Three

Kidd Group Communication Design

The new MHG factory near Bainbridge, Georgia is ramping up to mass-produce plastic from plants instead of petroleum.  Company officials say that's the future, but there are those who think that future may take a bit longer to arrive. 

MHG’s full scale plastic production - some thirty million pounds a year – will be made from locally grown canola seed.  Unlike conventional plastic made from petroleum or natural gas, the MHG product is totally biodegradable.  So much so, that the company’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Smith explained that process sometimes has to be slowed down, depending on what the plastic will be made into.

“We’ve actually got some polymers that can go away under the right conditions in 3 or 4 days,” he said.  “But you’ve also got some polymers we make for people that are a blend because they’re not ready to go all bio (plastic), so it’s a bio/petroleum base plastic blend.  Now the bio part may go away in a year, but the rest will be around for 50,000 years.  But it’s a start; it’s a step in the right direction.”

But Kim Williams, CEO of Tallahassee's Marpan, which is the area's primary recycler of glass, metal, paper and plastic, sees a problem with castoff products made from a bio-petro plastic blend.

“Well I hope that they will identify their product in a way that is readily discernable at a speed of 140-feet-per-minute, because that’s how fast our belts are running by these guys and if they’re making plastic bottles that look like ‘pet’ (petro-based plastic) bottles, we’re going to pull them off and put them in our ‘pet’ bin and bale and ship them to a ‘pet’ recovering facility.  And if they aren’t ‘pet’ we could perhaps have our product downgraded in value or our loads rejected.  And if that happens, then you’d lose the recycling market for ‘pet’ material while you’re trying to do something sustainable by using organics to make it,” Williams cautioned.

And that brings us to the real crux of any commercial matter; is biodegradable plastic made from plants financially feasible and could it soon replace “pet” - petroleum based plastic?  MHG's Smith insists the answer is yes on both counts.

“We don’t have to make plastic from oil or natural gas,” he said.  “You can make it from crops that grown and you can make it cheaper.  As we scale up, we can actually be not just the right decision, but the cost-effective decision as well.”

But Eric Hamilton, associate director of the Florida Petroleum Council, wasn’t so sure.

“It will probably start carving out some of the oil industry’s profits,” he admitted.  “But as we’ve seen there has been increased production – particularly here in the U.S. – both of natural gas and of oil, which has put downward pressure on prices as evidenced in the gasoline and diesel prices over the past couple of years.”

And those prices could fall even further.  Marpan's Kim Williams recalled an industry meeting not long ago that talked the huge increase in domestic natural gas production.

“It’s a cheap source of plastics is what it is and there were plans afoot to build plants that would throughput these propylene’s and ethaline’s into plastics, which they were considering would be a boon to manufacturing in America.  You would have all these cheap plastics to utilize to make products and at the same time that would make pricing pressure on anybody that’s using a look-alike or act-alike product to plastic, it would have a negative impact on (their) revenues.”

Despite all this, MHG's Smith remained confident their product can compete with and even beat petroleum and natural gas-based plastics.

“Our cost is a little bit more right now, a slight premium,” he said.  “But as we ramp up, we actually believe we can be below them.”

And, if Smith and his MHG colleagues are right, the future of the world's plastics industry may be already arriving, just a 40-minute drive from Tallahassee.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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