The startups paving the way for a world without plastics | Green shoots | The Guardian:
A number of startups and innovators have risen to this challenge, producing “zero-waste” materials with similar properties to plastic. San Francisco-based Mango Materials, for example, has developed a bioplastic that is cost-competitive with petroleum-based plastics. The company, which won the 2012 Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge, was co-founded by CEO Molly Morse after her PhD studies at Stanford University fired her interest in naturally occurring biopolymers called PHA – a naturally-made polyester.
“You can tailor their properties to get a lot of different types of mechanical performance,” she says. “Also, they’re one of the few, if only, naturally occurring biopolymers you can melt and mould into different shapes.” Historically PHAs have been produced through a costly method that involves feeding sugar to bacteria. But Morse and her co-founders realised it was possible to substitute sugar for a widely available and much more affordable alternative: methane.
Today, the company transforms methane (a highly potent greenhouse gas) from landfill and wastewater treatment into bioplastic, which comes in the form of either powder or pellets. These are sold to existing plastic producers, who turn them into products. When these products eventually reach a waste facility, they biodegrade back to methane in a closed-loop process. And if, somehow, Mango Materials’ bioplastic does end up in the ocean, marine microorganisms can digest it naturally. Recently, the company has developed a polyester replacement from its PHA, which could potentially help to reduce the amount of harmful microplastic fibres that enter waterways and oceans when clothes are washed. Morse also hopes to build a large-scale commercial facility in the future. “If we can make a billion pounds [of bioplastic] at a single plant, we will enjoy the economies of scale that petroleum-based plastics enjoy,” she says.
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