Remember my Q&A with Dr. Molly Morse of Mango Materials on it's methane-based bioplastic?
Here we learn of Stanford-funded material science start up Mango Materials and its innovation of using waste methane gas as the feedstock for bioplastic production. Instead of feeding sugar to microbes to produce bioplastic PHA, Dr. Morse and her team feed methane-- a gas 8 times more potent to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide-- to select microbes that produce bioplastic PHA. The advantage here is waste methane is cheaper than sugar, and the process is actually more efficient; the result is a PHA material that is competitive with traditional, fossil-fuel based plastics.
Bioplastic PHA, unlike PLA, is naturally occurring and can be consumed by microorganisms in any disposal environmental. Additionally, PHA is able to withstand higher temperatures without beginning to degrade, a property PLA does not share without the inclusion of additives; these additives unfortunately render it non compostable.
I included a profile of Mango Material's PHA in my "Waste, Repackaged" article for Packaging Digest; check it out here.
In the November article, we learn that Mango Material's is in the final stages of its PHA microbead pilot. Microbeads, as the name implies, are those tiny spheres popular in many face scrubs and hand soaps for their exfoliating and cleansing properties. Microbeads have been receiving a lot of attention lately for their environmental persistence and tendency to absorb and consequently concentrate environmental toxins; because of this, microbeads are considered an environmental nuisance.
Mango Material's PHA microbeads are the perfect remedy to this environmental issue. The PHA material is made from waste in a process that is potentially energy neutral and can break down in any disposal environment; most importantly, waterways and aqueous environments. Mango Materials was in the process of scaling up the technology to make PHA microbeads a commercial reality.
And then the government bans microbeads. I receive the following email from Dr. Morse:
Apologies for this mass email. In the past week or two we have been completely inundated (and slightly caught off-guard) by the developments on the federal microbead legislation.
We are incredibly disappointed with the current federal definition of "plastic microbeads" defined as "any solid plastic particle that is less than five millimeters in size and is intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body or any part thereof". One could read this as banning PHAs (although we could claim PHA is not a plastic).
PHAs have been around for billions of years and are already present in aquatic ecosystems. There is an abundance or science showing they can be naturally digested by a wide range of marine (and other) organisms. At Mango Materials, we see the current wording that does not clearly allow PHAs as not only anti-science - but also anti-innovation.
We will be talking with our advisors in the upcoming weeks to determine our best course of action. There are many great uses for PHAs and microbeads are one of them. Not only naturally occurring, but also digestible in a wide range of environments (aerobic, anaerobic, marine, etc).
Scaling up a manufacturing technology is not for the faint of heart and we thank you all for the continuing and ongoing support - we look forward to catching up with you all soon,
Is this policy anti-science and anti-innovation?
What is the relationship between regulation and innovation as it relates to "sustainability?"
Above: Dr. Molly Morse