The global demand for plastics is increasing 3-5% annually, with exponentially higher demand in developing countries. But what happens to plastic products after they are used? Even recycling results in waste that needs to end up somewhere.

Metabolix addresses these challenges with the manufacturing and production of innovative, biobased, compostable and biodegradable plastic products. Founded in 1992, the Cambridge-based company applies advanced chemical technologies, developed at MIT, to the industrial area.

Metabolix Chief Scientific Officer Oliver Peoples

Plastic is valuable first and foremost because it can serve as a barrier to water. Starches and other biologically based materials are generally poor substitutes because they absorb water, but Metabolix founders Oliver Peoples and Anthony Sinskey wondered if they could change that. They founded Metabolix after conducting research into the plastics potential of certain organic materials. Using a fermentation process with renewable resources, they were able to engineer a biopolymer with plastic properties.

Because Metabolix biopolymers are produced naturally from renewable resources, its flagship resin line, Mirel, can biodegrade in biologically active environments, like soil and water. Plastic products made out of Mirel biopolymers are thus entirely biodegradable, and will degrade within a month, and sometimes in as little as one week depending on the conditions.

As co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Oliver Peoples explained, “Before, people would talk about biodegradable products, but they didn’t really work. Our Mirel products are high performance and attractively priced; now people can have functionality and a clear conscience, too.”

Metabolix has developed several biopolymer products for different applications. The most popular product line is Mvera, which is used to produce compostable plastic film to make grocery bags. The bags look and feel just like any other grocery bag, but they are fully compostable.

Currently, the largest market for Metabolix biopolymer products is in Europe, but Peoples hopes that will change in the coming years. In many European countries, initiatives to manage waste are much stronger, and people are generally more environmentally conscious, but Peoples believes that the American market for Metabolix biodegradable products will continue to grow. “Ten years ago, this kind of technology was seen as impossible. And composting is much more cost effective than dealing with garbage. Our landfills are all getting too full, and we need to figure out what are we going to do with all this stuff? This technology can help to solve that problem.”

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Kelsey LaFreniere

Kelsey is a former Policy and Communications Assistant for the New England Clean Energy Council.

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