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 Big Funding Boost to Pursue Potato Plastics in Maine Minimize


Development of environment friendly plastic from Maine potatoes received a huge boost today with the signing of a contract to award a $200,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) to a consortium led by InterfaceFABRIC, Inc, a Maine based manufacturer. The MTI grant leverages an additional $459,000 in matching funds from several Maine businesses and the Environmental Health Strategy Center, supported by a grant from Kendeda Fund, a private foundation committed to sustainable economic development.

Over the next 18 months the $659,000 project will fund research and development leading to the eventual production and commercialization of PLA (polylactic acid) plastic from Maine potatoes. Biobased PLA is nontoxic, petroleum free, and can be composted at the end of its useful life.

“We are excited about the investment of research funds to support the building of a new potato plastics technology sector in Maine” said Stacie Beyer, Corporate Environmental Manager for InterfaceFABRIC, Inc. “Our investments in sustainable products have been rewarded in the marketplace and we are committed to the successful development of new products that can be made in Maine from locally grown potatoes.”

“Maine will become a leader in environmentally friendly production of plastic through this collaboration,” said Mike Belliveau, Executive Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center. “The result will be creation of good new jobs in clean and green manufacturing, a new market for Maine’s growers to tap into, and sustainable products for consumers in Maine and beyond.”

Over the next 18 months the project will:

* Demonstrate the feasibility of producing potato-based polylactic acid (PLA) plastic resin in the laboratory at the Process Development Center at the University of Maine, Orono;
* Identify performance characteristics and technical needs of PLA plastic for use in textiles, foams, hard plastics and packaging;
* Research the market conditions and opportunities for companies interested in using potato plastics though a study conducted by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center;
* Work with potato processors and growers to determine optimum siting of production facilities; and
* Develop a trade association to exchange information, impact policy concerning PLA, educate consumers, and market Maine-made PLA products.

Bio-based plastics are made of starch from plants instead of petroleum. They can replace most petrochemical plastics used to make bottles, packaging, fabric and many other items. Corn based PLA plastic from the Midwest is in use throughout the country..

In 2004 InterfaceFABRIC began making fabric for commercial interiors made entirely from the starch contained in corn. The idea to use Maine potatoes as a feedstock for plastic production grew out of an interest in using local materials to reduce the environmental footprint associated with the manufacture and transportation of corn from the Midwest. Other Maine businesses including personal care product company Tom’s of Maine and foam manufacturers Rynel, Inc joined with InterfaceFABRIC in this project because they too would like to use locally produced, sustainable bioplastics for their products.

A study released by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine in June 2007 concluded Maine potatoes are an economically viable source for new production of bio-based plastics without displacement of any food crop. Ample fallow farm acreage exists to meet the needs of Maine’s businesses and the potatoes could be delivered to a processing facility in a cost effective manner. The study also indicated that it is economically feasible for Maine potato growers to plant and harvest potatoes specifically for the manufacture of PLA using potato varieties that are currently grown. The planting, harvesting, and pre-processing of these potatoes would be no different than what the growers are currently doing. The report also concludes that the potato farmers would receive a price comparable to that currently being paid for table stock potatoes.

Rising petroleum prices coupled with an increase in market demand for “green” products have bolstered the demand for bio-based plastics. The biopolymer share of the plastic market is poised to grow from 1% now to 6 -12% by 2010. Currently there is limited production capacity with only one company in the United States supplying bio-based plastic made from corn. The identified demand for bioplastic is 8 times the 2008 expected capacity. Worldwide, the market for bioplastics is projected to reach between $15-30 billion by 2010 and $50 billion by 2015. If Maine companies captured and supplied even 1% of this market the Maine bioplastics industry share would total $500 million.

Sustainable Bioplastics Consortium members include InterfaceFABRIC, the Environmental Health Strategy Center, Rynel Inc, Tom’s of Maine, the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, the Process Development Center at the University of Maine, Orono, the Maine Potato Board, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and Green Harvest Technology, LLC.

For more information please contact Amanda Sears, Associate Director, Environmental Health Strategy Center at (207) 939-7333 or asears@preventharm.org.

Posted on 5/19/2008 (Archive on 6/9/2008)

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