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One Step Closer to a Compostable Car, Thanks to Bioplastics

Is a compostable bioplastic car in your future?Some time in the sparkling green future, the global food giant Archer Daniels Midland might have a hand in developing the world’s first compostable car.  And we might have to thank the Belgians for that, too.  Sounds far-fetched, right?  Not when you throw in the U.S. military and a small Massachusetts  company that specializes in bioplastics.

The Bioplastics Connection

Massachusetts-based Metabolix is working with the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), to develop its proprietary bioplastic, Mirel™ for military use in food packaging.  The logistics are compelling.  Tons of plastic go into wrapping and shipping MRE’s and base food supplies.  Disposing of all that waste requires fuel, which in turn requires a convoy, and convoys need to be manned – and in some cases, defended.  Cutting down on non-biodegradable waste is one way to trim costs and improve troop safety.

The Archer Daniels Midland Connection

ADM has teamed up with Metabolix in a joint venture called Telles, to market Mirel bioplastic.  The first plant capable of producing Mirel bioplastic in commercial quantites is under construction next to an ADM corn mill in Clinton, Iowa, expected to go online later this year.  In the great green scheme of things, corn is not an ideal feedstock, but it’s possible that alternatives are in the future; Metabolix is working on other crops such as switchgrass and oilseeds.

Biodegradable or Compostable?

Biodegradability refers to the capability of a material to be converted into carbon dioxide by microorganisms.  Compostability is held to a higher standard – a lot of them, in fact.  In order to be considered compostable, a material has to meet standards for heavy metals and any other substance that could affect the plants that grow in it.

Enter the Belgians

This is where the rubber hits the road.  A Belgian firm called Vinçotte is emerging as a leader in certifying materials for meeting European Norm (EN) standards for compostability.  In addition to covering Europe, Vinçotte is also active in Morocco, Japan, and the U.S.  The applicable standard is EN 13432: 200.  On May 6, Metabolix announced that Vinçotte has certified Mirel bioplastic for compostability with its OK Compost and OK Compost HOME marks, meaning that the material is certified to biodegrade appropriately for compost under both industrial and household conditions.

EN Bioplastic Standards, the U.S. Military, and Compostable Cars

With the U.S. military and “supermarket-to-the-world” ADM both throwing their considerable weight behind a bioplastic that’s not merely biodegradable but compostable, there’s a chance for the economics of scale to kick in.  One thing holding bioplastics back from the mass market is price, so once that barrier falls, anything is possible.  Researchers are already working on a way to make car parts out of coconut husks, so using a compostable bioplastic doesn’t stretch the imagination that much farther.   For that matter, the U.S. military is also looking into recycling used bioplastic to make diesel fuel.  The next step: how big is the market for an edible car?

Image: at flickr.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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