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Is Plastic From Plants A Pollution Solution - Part Two

Kidd Group Communication Design

It’s been said, “Life is fleeting; plastics are forever.”  And if you doubt the wisdom of that saying, just check out a recent ABC News Report on what’s being called the “Pacific Garbage Patch.”

The story described the garbage patch as “created by the Pacific current, carrying refuse from North America, Asia and the Pacific Islands; then concentrating it into a continent-sized swirl of flotsam estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of junk, 80 percent of it plastic.”

And that apparently, is just a drop in the proverbial oceanic bucket.

“Based upon our estimates and research, about eight million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans globally on an annual basis.  And so if we can find solutions to mitigate that, that’s what we’re looking for,” said Jenna Jambeck, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia.  Her search for mitigation to the growing worldwide problem of discarded plastic brought her to Bainbridge, Georgia and the MHG factory.  It’s making its own kind of plastic, not from petrochemicals, but from locally grown plants.  Paul Pereira is the chair and CEO of MHG, which by the way are the initials for Meridian Holdings Group.  He explained there are some guiding principles to making his product.

“There’s one that talks about the biodegradability of the product.  That’s determined by the ‘end-of-life scenario’; where does the product end up when you’re finished using it?”  Pereira said.  “If it ends up in the oceans and on what was once white, pristine beaches, then it’s a poor end-of-life.  We want a product that’s biodegradable.”

That concern for what happens to the product long after it has left the MHG plant impressed Professor Jambeck.

“I’m pleased to see people thinking about not only proper management at end-of-life like how does this product behave either in our landfills or in our composting systems, but we know that we’re going to have some mismanaged waste and really seeing what a product does in that environment is just as important,” she noted.

So, in the event a beverage container, six-pack ring, or plastic bag made from MHG’s plant process winds up on the side of the road, on the beach or in the ocean, it will simply melt away in a few weeks and not hang around for centuries.  For MHG CEO Pereira, there’s another important consideration.  That is, to make a product from a sustainable raw material: namely, canola seed.

“That canola seed will be replanted next year.  It’s a great second crop for farmers,” he said.  “It has added revenue (for them), especially in a year when there was a downturn in sweet corn and soybean prices.  Here’s a model of  truly sustainable and renewable (process) because we will plant several thousand more acres of canola fields next year and harvest them again and replant them and harvest them again and continue to turn that canola oil into plastic replacement.” 

In fact, Pereira is envisioning scenarios that are closed-loop: that is, making a variety of products from a single recyclable material with virtually no waste.  An example, the Chic-Fil-A Restaurant chain, which now uses canola oil in its deep fryers.

“We grow the canola, we harvest the seed and crush it into oil, we deliver the oil to Chic-Fil-A, which does their French fries with the oil.  We then take the used cooking oil and bring it back here and turn it into replacement for plastic.  We manufacture with that used oil the cutlery – the knives, the spoons, the forks, containers and the plastic bags to deliver back to Chic-Fil-A – and that bio-degradable product now goes back to the farmland as a nutrient for the soil.”


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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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