Ethan Arpi

Biodegradable Plastics

PlasticsIn the 1967 film The Graduate, Walter Brook gives a baby faced Dustin Hoffman advice he should never forget. ?I want to say one word to you. Just one word.? After pausing for dramatic effect, he continues, ?Plastics.? Now, almost forty years later, Dustin Hoffman has forty times the wrinkles. Yet Brook’s advice is still as relevant as ever; plastics are still the secret to success. But these aren?t any ordinary petroleum based plastics. Eco-friendly plastics, which can be used to make everything from bottle caps to plastic bags, promise to be the industry of the future.

Friday afternoon I spoke with a sales representative at Metabolix, a smart new company which has the potential to revolutionize the world of consumer products. Founded by a team of academics at MIT, Metabolix has developed a tasty new recipe for converting corn into the polymers used in plastic. The Boston Globe describes the process far more eloquently than I ever could, so I will defer to their summary: ?To make plastic from corn, kernels are soaked and ground to release starch. The starch is converted into dextrose, a sugar, which is fermented using bacteria to produce lactic acid. As water is removed from the lactic acid, the molecules form polymers, which become the basis for a variety of plastics.?

How could corn based plastics transform consumerism? Thanks to the wonderful world of pork barrel politics and farm subsidies, American farms produce far more corn than the market demands. If we are lucky, this extra corn might actually have a productive use in eco-friendly plastics and not culinary delights like corn syrup and cow feed. Metabolix’s recent agreement with ADM, the multibillion dollar agribusiness, may seem like a Faustian pact to many environmentalists, but it’s possible that this deal diverts corn away from its more insidious uses.

Other possible consequences of this new technology are particularly relevant to the BOP. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is simply out of the question for the BOP to become frivolous consumers like their American counterparts. To see what I mean, just imagine 4 billion new SUVs clogging the world’s roads and highways.

So how does this have anything to do with plastics? As C.K. Prahalad notes in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, people who earn less than two dollars a day often use single serving packets of soap and shampoo because they cannot afford to invest in longer lasting products. From a business perspective, these single serving packets are smart because they allow billions of people to purchase products that they could otherwise not afford. The one problem is that these products create way too much waste.

Here’s where a company like Metabolix could step in. If consumer goods for the BOP ?and the rest of the world for that matter?incorporated biodegradable plastics, we could at least slow down the rate of environmental degradation. Our rivers, which are now choked with petroleum-based plastics that take hundreds of years to decay, could be revived with these biodegradable plastics, which disappear in only a matter of weeks.

But alas my rosy forecast of biodegradable plastics is slightly premature. Metabolix is still in its pre-commercial stage although it hopes to launch its product by late summer. Yet other companies like Australia’s Plantic are now producing and selling biodegradable plastics, which are used in the packaging of gourmet chocolates. So if you?re a wide-eyed college grad who is interested in business and the environment, I have one word of advice?