One word: bioplastics

At a new plant in Iowa, MIT-rooted technology will use bacteria to turn corn into biodegradable plastics.

Every year, more than 540 billion pounds of plastic are produced worldwide. Much of it ends up in the world’s oceans, a fact that troubles MIT biology professor Anthony Sinskey.

“Plastic does not degrade in the ocean. It just gets ground up into tiny particles,” he says. In the Pacific Ocean, a vast swath twice the size of Texas teems with tiny bits of oil-based plastic that can poison ocean life.

Sinskey can’t do much about the plastic that’s already polluting the Earth’s oceans, but he is trying to help keep the problem from getting worse. Next month, a company he founded with his former postdoc, Oliver Peoples, will open a new factory that uses MIT-patented technology to build plastic from corn. The plant aims to produce annually 110 million pounds of the new bioplastic, which biodegrades in soil or the ocean.

That’s a fraction of one percent of the United States’ overall plastic production, which totaled 101.5 billion pounds in 2008. Though it will take bioplastics a long time before they can start making a dent in that figure, the industry has significant growth potential, says Melissa Hockstad, vice president for science, technology and regulatory affairs for SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association.

“Bioplastics are making inroads into new markets and are an important area to watch for the future of the plastics industry,” says Hockstad, who noted that the current global market for biodegradable polymers is estimated at about 570 million pounds per year but is expected to more than double by 2012.

‘Timing is everything’

For Sinskey and Peoples, the road started 25 years ago. Peoples, who had just earned his PhD in molecular biology from the University of Aberdeen, arrived in Sinskey’s lab in 1984 and set out to sequence a bacterial gene. Today, high-speed sequencing machines could do the job in about a week. Back then, it took three years.

That gene, from the bacterium R. eutropha, turned out to code for an enzyme that allows bacteria to produce polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) — a naturally occurring form of polyester — starting with only sunlight, water, and a carbon source. (Bacteria normally manufacture PHA as a way to store carbon and energy.)

Sinskey and Peoples realized that if they could ramp up the bacteria’s plastic producing abilities, they could harness the organisms for industrial use. In 1994, they started a company called Metabolix and took out exclusive patents from MIT on the gene work they had done on PHA-synthesizing bacteria.

Thus began a 15-year effort to develop the technology into a robust, large-scale process, and to win support for such an approach.

On the scientific side, Peoples and the scientists at Metabolix developed a method to incorporate several genes from different bacteria into a strain of E. coli. Using this process, now called metabolic engineering, they eventually created a strain that produces PHA at levels several-fold higher than naturally occurring bacteria.

However, they had some difficulty generating support (and funding) for the idea. In the early 1990s, the public was not very receptive to the idea of alternative plastics. “Oil was $20 a barrel, and people didn’t believe in global warming,” Peoples recalls.

“Timing is everything,” says Sinskey. “There has to be a market for these materials” for them to be successful.

‘Growing interest’

The scientists believe that consumers are now ready for bioplastics. Such plastics have been commercially available for about a decade, mostly in the form of plastic cups, bottles and food packaging. Most of those products are made from a type of plastic called polylactic acid (PLA), which is also produced from corn. PLA is similar to PHA, but PHA has higher heat resistance, according to Peoples.

Possible uses for the Metabolix bioplastics include packaging, agricultural film, compost bags, business equipment and consumer products such as personal care products, gift cards and pens. Products like these, along with existing bioplastic products, tap into a “growing interest in materials that can be made from renewable resources or disposed of through practices such as composting,” says Hockstad.

The new Metabolix plant, located in Clinton, Iowa, is a joint venture with Archer Daniels Midland. Metabolix is also working to engineer crops — including switchgrass — that will grow the plastic directly within the plant.

Turning to those agricultural starting materials could help reduce the amount of petroleum needed to manufacture traditional plastics, which currently requires about 2 million barrels of oil per day (10 percent of total U.S. daily oil consumption). “It’s important to develop alternative ways to make these chemicals,” says Peoples.

Topics: Bioengineering and biotechnology, Chemistry and chemical engineering, Energy, Food, Genetics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E)


This is a fascinating article about a promising new technology. It seems we have turned the corn er and that maybe we are going to find ways to make this planet, safer, cleaner, and more beautiful for us all.

I find it endlessly amazing, namely the endless possibilities of the creative imagination. When we turn our energies to positive acts, it does seem, doors keep on opening. I think this is wonderful and since all discovery seems to come with a price, I wonder if there is a down side to this new, most exciting, technology.

I'm reading a book called MIT and the Rise of Enthepreneurial Science which introduces the history and tremendous influence of the MIT mode, an entrepreneurial university. After reading this article, I've tangibly felt the mode.

I firmly believe that MIT mode will be adopted by more and more universities in the world and play important role in promoting scientific and technological development and improving the human living standard.

There is an abandonded chemical plant at Pampa, TX. It belonged to Celenese Chemical Co. It has all kinds of equipment that probably could be used in this type of operation. You should to check it out. We also grow a lot of corn around here.


Where do I invest? The Chinese are going to out green us (I hope!).

For a beginning investor of only environmentally friendly business adventures, finding bargains and new ideas is not easy. Many green investments are a bit oversold! I want Bio plastics! Where can I try out a few shares?

If the science was developed to make the world a better place, why place a patent on it? To reap profits? I understand the importance of obtaining a patent, however why will people go for your product over the competitors? Will the PHA plastic be cheaper than the PLA plastic? I think important scientific advances like these be considered public domain. I think many companies will use this technology for the greater good rather than profit. I also believe that having this process common knowledge will fast track the development and make it affordable. This guy can also make money off of it. I would like to see it yesterday versus ten years from now.

Just a thought to ponder on.

Developing plastics that are better for our environment is fantastic idea ... thank you for your efforts. One of my concerns is that the plastic is made from GM corn. Shouldn't the land being used to crow corn for ethanol/plastic be used to grow food grain? Food prices are rising and countries that need to import our grains have to clear cut/burn their forests to grow substitute crops. I would rather something like algae be used.

Can I find out what by products this might create?

I applaud the effort, but how is this different than the Natureworks LLC, cofounded by Dow & Cargill in 1997 (now wholly owned by Cargill), in Blair, Nebraska? This company is still in business, but arguably has not been nearly as successful as originally thought. Let's not throw good money after bad. Are we creating another government subsidized industry?

None of the prescriptive solutions like LEED work well. This is the overall and comprehensive solution. This is still noise and I am a bit skeptical. We will have to wait and see if this is actually a viable alternative.

The problem with these scenarios are these plastics are ASTM 6400 which mean they will only compost in the 88 commercial and municipal composts now in the US. They are not backyard compostable. And the fact that PLA/corn plastics use MORE fossil fuel than regular plastics. NatureWorks buys energy credits to off-set this little problem. This is creating problems, not solving them. Between diverting corn into ethanol and plastics, food costs rose 24% last year. There is a DEAD ZONE the size of the state of NJ in the Gulf of Mexico from corn's use of nitrogen fertilizers. The Environmental Defense Org stated that PLA is causing more global warming than gasoline. Not good.

Algae is renewable, does not affect the food channel and consumes CO2. Algae-based oil will biodegrade faster in landfills. The National Algae Asssociation www.nationalaalgaeassociation.... is working with any plastic resin partners interested in using algae oil in their process.

Back to the top