Could plastic made from bacteria guts help solve our waste crisis?
“Plastic” is a category that encompasses a huge diversity of materials with one thing in common: They’re made of repeating chains of molecules known as “polymers” and can be molded or extruded while soft to take particular shapes. Until recently, we've only looked to petrochemicals (made from crude oil and natural gas) to create plastics with the properties we find so useful: the rigidity of takeout utensils, the flexibility of plastic films, the moisture barrier that contains greasy food. Although some less-common petroplastics are indeed biodegradable, bioplastics—which are often made from plant materials like sugar cane pulp, corn, or cassava and in many cases biodegrade after relatively short periods—may also be able to help address our big plastic problem.
Enter polyhydroxyalkanoates, also known as PHAs, polymers used to make biodegradable bioplastics from an unlikely source: bacteria guts. PHAs and other bioplastics seek to challenge our assumptions about what plastic can be, and companies like Danimer in Georgia and Mango Materials in California are betting big that their products can help make a dent in our plastic waste numbers. Danimer’s partnership with Bacardi will see that company unveiling PHA bottles in all of its liquor lines by 2023; it also has partnerships in the works with Nestle, Pepsico, and other giants of single-use plastic. Meanwhile, Mango is making inroads into other plastic-reliant industries, like apparel. (Yes, your workout clothes have plastic in them.)
But PHAs aren’t new. They’ve been around for 35 years, and doubters like to point to Metabolix, a PHA company that seemed promising, grew quickly, and then collapsed in 2016. Metabolix and other would-be innovators have lived and died trying to “make PHAs happen.” Is now the time for this bioplastic to break through?
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