The demand for safe, sustainable products has soared in recent years. One of the most promising innovations in sustainable material production is the development of bio-based plastics.
The plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. Conventional plastics are made from nonrenewable petroleum and natural gas byproducts. Bio-based plastic, made from the starch or sugars of plants, is emerging as a safer, more sustainable alternative to conventional plastics.
The potential societal benefit from a shift toward bio-based plastics could be enormous. Substitution of biopolymers for petroleum-based plastics could reduce consumption of fossil fuels and eliminate many of the health concerns associated with traditional plastic production, use and disposal. Increased demand for domestic agricultural feedstock also offers new resource-based economic development opportunities for farmers and rural communities. Additionally bio-based plastics have the benefit of being made from annually renewable, recyclable, biodegradable and compostable natural materials.
While biopolymers can be made from an almost unlimited range of natural materials most of the bio-based plastic currently available is made from corn from the Midwest. Corn is a poor choice from a sustainability perspective. Compared with other crops it is resource intensive and most of the corn grown in the Midwest is genetically modified which makes it less desirable for consumers concerned with sustainability and food security.
Maine potatoes and woody biomass have the potential to provide the world with safe, sustainable plastics. Potatoes and wood pulp possess all of the key properties needed to make bio-plastics and can be more sustainable raw materials than corn.
The Environmental Health Strategy Center is part of the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine, a trade organization of diverse Maine businesses and organizations working to develop a bioplastic manufacturing enterprise in Maine. Our aim is to insure that the feedstock, manufacturing, marketing, working conditions and ownership — are economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.
Over $2 million has been raised for research and development of Maine’s bioplastics industry. Our project team has identified that Maine potatoes and woody biomass are an economically viable source for new production of bioplastics. Thirteen million pounds of bioplastic could be made each year solely from waste potatoes leftover from the growing of Maine’s potato food crop.
Development of sustainable plastics from Maine potatoes and woody biomass would benefit the State’s economy by:
- Attracting federal research and development grants and private venture capital to build a new bio-plastics manufacturing facility in Aroostook County;
- Creating new manufacturing jobs in the bio-plastics industry;
- Creating new value-added opportunities for Maine potato growers and processors while reducing disposal costs by using waste potatoes as feedstock;
- Meeting the current demand of Maine companies such as True Textiles for bioplastics with Maine natural resources rather than Midwestern corn, lowering the environmental footprint associated with transportation of this raw material; and
- Meeting the growing green market demand for sustainable plastics that are non-toxic, petroleum-free, and can be composted at the end of their useful life.