A growing solution to the plastics problem

By Don “Doc” Sanders

Plastics are all around us. Cookware and eating utensils, toys and games, car and truck fenders, syringes, fence posts, single-use water bottles, signs, and even human anatomical parts made on 3-D printers. They’re all made of plastic.

We have Leo Baekeland, a brilliant, but eccentric, Belgian-born chemist, to thank for setting us on the course to our world of plastic. Experimenting with formaldehyde and phenol formulations, he invented, in 1907, the first type of plastic, which he named Bakelite. A solid heat-resistant product that could be molded into different shapes, it was used primarily for electrical equipment like telephones. 

For his history-making invention, Baekeland landed on the cover of Time magazine. And for founding the first plastics company, the Bakelite Corporation, he became known as the Father of the Plastics Industry. The tagline for his company’s star product: “The Material of a Thousand Uses.” 

Bakelite drew the kind of attention given today to innovations like cell phones, smartwatches and robotic machines. Since his breakthrough, new chemical compositions have been developed to further expand the use of plastics — too many to list in this publication. 

The downside of all the plastic produced over the past 100 plus years is that it’s still around! Billions of tons of plastic get caught up in ditches along roads, in parking lots and literally square miles of the oceans. 

Plastic is a guest that’s slow to leave, with a 400- to 450-year decomposition cycle — nearly half a millennium of wreaking a special kind of havoc on our environment. (It’s been estimated that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish.)

You probably know full well the kind of environmental cancer that I am describing with all the plastic beverage bottles, grocery bags and wrappers discarded into our wind-swept environment. Plastic Oceans International reports that less than 9% of plastic is recycled.

A plunge into plastics data is staggering. Approximately 380 billion tons are produced worldwide every year. Half of it is purposed for one-time use. 

Now, the American farmer enters as the proverbial white knight! Oliver Peoples at Yield10 Biosciences proposes that the America farmer can grow a genetically modified camelina crop, which contains a natural polyester polymer that can be processed into plastic — to help solve at least part of the plastics crisis. 

This flowering plant, camelina, is an oilseed crop similar to sunflowers but not as tall. The plastic polymer PHA (polyhydroxyalkancate) contained in camelina seeds belongs to a family of biobased polymers that are widespread in nature. Entirely biodegradable, they can disappear in a short amount of time after disposal. Dropped in a river, an ocean, a field or compost pile, they degrade very quickly.

Peoples, while working at MIT, developed a method to produce PHA by fermenting engineered microorganisms. He was the first to write a patent application for the process. He also developed a method to grow crops that contain PHA to provide a ready source of plastic polymers for industry.

Currently, Cargill’s NatureWorks facility in Nebraska and BASF have products that can degrade plastic sent to their plants. Plastics made with PHA polymers, however, do not need to be hauled to a plant for processing. If you leave a PHA plastic bottle in your backyard, it will degrade rather quickly on its own.

Two genetically modified camelina plant lines produce seeds with a PHA concentration of 5% to 10%. The ideal level is 20%, to make it economically profitable. I think this is achievable as demonstrated by companies that have increased THA content in marijuana to double the levels that PHA currently reaches and gives the user a real kick.

Research is also being conducted to make the camelina plant resistant to herbicides to keep production costs as low as possible. Peoples’ strategy is for camelina to be grown as a cover crop prior to corn or as a double crop with a follow-up of soybeans.

Expanded acreage is being planted in 2021 in Idaho and Manitoba. Hurdles are yet to be overcome, but the possibilities for camelina appear endless, beyond producing degradable plastic polymers. Other camelina seed traits include a high protein content and indications that the seed could improve feed efficiency and animals’ resistance to diseases.

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