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 Potatoes to Plastics
In November 2006, the Maine Technology Institute awarded a Seed Grant to InterfaceFABRIC (formerly Guilford of Maine) to evaluate the feasibility of using Maine potatoes and other agricultural crops to meet the growing demand for PLA (polylactic acid) in the production of bio-based plastic products. InterfaceFABRIC currently manufacture  fabric for commercial interiors using bio-based, renewable, and biodegradable fiber derived from Midwest corn. Interface would like to buy PLA produced in Maine from Maine potatoes.

The research was conducted by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center with substantial contributions from Maine’s potato and bio-plastics Industry, the University of Maine, the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine and Green Harvest Technologies. The report being released today “Potatoes to Plastics” clearly supports the conclusion that Maine’s potato industry could supply the PLA needed by Maine’s bio-plastics industry.

Maine’s sustainable bio-based plastics initiative is being driven by a market demand for non-toxic bio-based products and the industry’s effort to respond to this new market opportunity. There are many Maine companies interested in using this “Green Chemistry” approach to identifying new non-toxic raw materials to use in their products and a number of investors are evaluating the potential for building a PLA production facility in Aroostook County.

In recent years, the public has become increasingly concerned about the impact of toxic chemicals on humans and the environment. These chemicals have been found in consumer products, the air and water, and increasingly in humans. Consequently, industry and researchers are shifting towards bio-based products manufacturing and green chemistry in an effort to produce better, safer products, while providing for a cleaner and more sustainable world. This is the core concept of “Green Chemistry”.

Maine is already recognized as a leader in Green Chemistry and the emerging Bio-Based Plastics industry. The University of Maine system is a member of the congressionally funded New England Green Chemistry Consortium and in June 2006 hosted its annual meeting in Orono. The Maine Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health at the University of Southern Maine is at the forefront of using “Green Chemistry” principles to examine the toxic properties of chemicals and other hazardous materials in the environment, animals and in existing and future products.

In addition to using Maine’s potatoes to support new industries, Maine’s forest products sector, in collaboration with the University of Maine, and State and federal economic development agencies, is currently researching the feasibility of converting Maine’s pulp and paper mills into bio-refineries. The by-products from the wood pulp waste stream can be used to produce raw materials for the chemical and plastics industry.

Maine potatoes and other agricultural crops offer a similar economic opportunity. The findings presented in this report will benefit Maine’s innovation economy by:
  • Attracting federal R&D grants and private venture capital to build a new bio-based plastics manufacturing facility in Aroostook County;
  • Creating new Maine manufacturing jobs in the bio-based plastics industry;
  • Creating new value-adding opportunities for Maine potato growers and processors in partnership with the emerging bio-based plastics industry, while reducing disposal costs by using waste potatoes as the feedstock;
  • Meeting the current demand of Maine companies such as InterfaceFabric for bio-based plastic made from Maine potatoes rather than Midwestern corn, lowering the environmental footprint associated with transportation of this raw material;
  • Meeting the growing green market demand for sustainable plastics that are non-toxic, petroleum-free and can be composted at the end of their useful life.
Bio-Based Plastics Benefit both the Economy & Environment
  • Strengthen Maine’s Rural Economy: New manufacturing jobs in northern Maine will be required to produce bio-based plastics with additional spin-off jobs for processing.
  • Create Market Advantage: Maine businesses that use packaging and products from bio-based plastics can improve sales to the growing environmentally conscious market.
  • Promote Sustainable Agriculture: Producing PLA from Maine potatoes will expand markets, reduce pesticide use and improve soil fertility through better rotation.
  • Protect Environmental Public Health: Bio-based plastics avoid the health-threatening toxic chemical additives and byproducts associated with existing petrochemical derived plastics.
  • Reduce Oil Consumption: PLA production from corn requires 35% less fossil fuel usage when compared to making an equal amount of petrochemical-based PET plastic.
  • Slow Climate Change: PLA production from corn results in 52% fewer net green house gas emissions than the manufacture of an equal amount of PET.
  • Reduce Waste: Products made from bio-based plastics can be composted at the end of their useful life, conserving landfill space. Using waste potatoes as the feedstock to make PLA will avoid costly disposal problems.

For more information about the Potatoes to Plastics Research Report or Maine’s Bio-Based Plastics Initiative contact:

Stanley W. Eller, Coordinator for Economic Development & Green Chemistry, Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine. Tel: (207) 623-0359.

Michael Belliveau, Executive Director, Environmental Health Strategy Center. Tel: (207) 827-6331.

Wendy Porter or Stacie Beyer, InterFaceFABRIC. Tel: (207) 262-6210 or (207) 262-6211.
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