When we consider just how much plastic is used and promptly disposed of in our every day lives, the amount of fossil fuels wasted is shocking. Nearly all available plastics are made from petroleum, a resource which is both increasingly scarce and non-biodegradable. Thankfully, researchers at Metabolix in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are working on a renewably sourced, biodegradable polymer.
Metabolix was cofounded by MIT biology professor Anthony Sinskey and MTA research scientist Oliver People after the pair discovered metabolic genes that allow soil bacteria to produce PHA—a natural polymer. It took them a decade to perfect these metabolic systems to the point of producing high levels of PHA. This process involves expensive fermenters, but does successfully produce a polymer which Metabolix sells.
Researchers are excited to develop a more cost-effective plant-based process. The issue is that plants are more complex and tricky to genetically modify than simple bacteria. The end result, however, would allow crops grown on marginal lands to produce polymers, with much less equipment. It is estimated that plant-based polymers could be sold at less than 50% of the price currently charged for the bacteria-produced polymer. This would make biodegradable polymers available to a wider market, and increase sustainable practices in a cost-effective manner.
Botanists at Metabolix are currently working on inserting these metabolic genes and others into grasses such as switchgrass, sugarcane and camelina. While the process would still require certain machines and fertilizers which require fossil fuels, the overall emissions and waste would be significantly less than the current product, and certainly less most commercial plastics. The implications for a green economy and healthy planet are tremendous.
6-11-13 Tara Storozynsky
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