Sustainable & Renewable ‘Agrofacturing’ – Can MHG Make it Grow?

By Laura Mauney

Since purchasing the original PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) patent from Proctor & Gamble in 2007, the scientists, agriculturalists and business leaders at MHG, the umbrella company for Meredian, Danimer Scientific, and AgroCrush – have worked at the heart of efforts to develop a new breed of bio-based plastic feedstock.

By sourcing non-GMO seeds from canola, and cold pressing the seeds to extract oil for use in PHA bioplastic, MHG has created a sustainable and renewable replacement for petroleum in most plastic applications, without interfering with food crop production.

Why Do Sustainability and Renewability Matter?

Let’s face it. Petroleum may be “black gold” to many, but it cannot renew itself.

Warnings that the world’s oil supply would be depleted within a century were sounded in the 1970s, almost half a century ago. The warnings were followed by a sort of petro feeding frenzy akin to the California gold rush of yore: prospectors scrambling to the trough and even warring to grab as much of the valuable resource as possible before it is gone for good.

Despite the many uses of petroleum for transportation, manufacturing and packaging that are ever-obvious in our daily lives, those benefits occurred in tandem with an overflow of oil spills, carbon pollution in the atmosphere, and mountains of plastic trash.

One positive outcome of the conflict between demand and impact is that savvy businesses have gone looking for viable substitutes, including the use of biodegradable vegetable matter for both fuel and plastics. Corn based bioplastic, for example – primarily in the form of PLA (polylactic acid) – has been in the plastics feedstock marketplace for years.

However, the hard lessons learned from the petroleum boom has tempered blind acceptance of newfound veggie alternatives.

Although corn-based bioplastic has been adapted for use in many disposable products for which biodegradability is desirable – such as cups, dishware and cutlery – PLA doesn’t breakdown as rapidly as PHA under natural conditions. Additionally, the reliance of PLA manufacturers on food crops for fuel and plastic sourcing has raised concerns among scientists, governments and farmers.

“… the use of agricultural production systems for replacing fossil carbon in packaging and materials has potential to negatively impact global food supplies and local ecosystems…

The danger is that, as with biofuels, shifting agricultural production towards these industrial uses can spike global food prices and encourage destruction of biodiversity through mono-cropping.”

– Daniel Zaleznik, Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance

MHG Agrofacturing – No Mono-Cropping Allowed!

MHG calls its unique approach to growing canola for use in PHA bioplastic feedstock agrofacturing, as in manufacturing with agriculture.

MHG’s industrial level cold-press technology for extracting canola oil from the seed results in a toxin free PHA resin that is far more durable and adaptable than PLA, but which also biodegrades rapidly when disposed of in soil and water, and composts anaerobically and aerobically at home or in industrial waste management facilities.

Canola Cropping Takes Farmers Two-Steps Beyond Sustainability and Renewability

Canola (an acronym for Canada Oil Low Acid) is an offshoot of the rapeseed plant, and was created by Canadian scientists Keith Downey and Baldur R. Stefansson in the 1970s using centuries-old plant breeding techniques.

MHG’s South Georgia (USA) location sits amidst tens of thousands of acres of premium, water and nutrient rich farmland that offers an ideal environment for canola cropping.

“MHG has done research on several vegetable oils over the last few years. Canola is the oil we find best suited for our geographic region,” says Chief Operating Officer Michael Smith.

“Canola seeds contain approximately 42% oil by weight. This, along with its ability to grow well in our region, make it a great oil choice. We also have farmers who have successfully grown this crop in the past.”

Key advantages to sourcing canola are that it can be double cropped, and that leftover plant material can be plowed under to enrich soil or used as livestock feed. Growers rotate canola seasonally with other crops, which enables them to support bioplastic production without compromising food production.

Affirms Smith: “Canola is a winter crop for the south [southeastern United States] and would typically be planted from late October through early December with harvest occurring late April through mid-May. This time frame allows for the normal, spring/summer crops to be planted earlier than if they were following a winter wheat. These extra few days/weeks can turn the normal crops into full-season crops with little to no yield loss.”

Canola not only can be rotated off-season with traditional crops – such as peanuts, cotton and soy – but its cultivation actually serves to enrich soil, creating an environment more conducive to other agricultural pursuits. By alternating canola with other crops, farmers not only increase the value of their enterprises, but improve the quality of their land.

These agricultural factors combined with the stability, durability, biodegradability and solid chemistry of PHA make MHG Bioplastic a more than viable alternative to its top competitors in the bioplastics arena, and even moreso in the petroleum plastic marketplace, especially when MHG’s “agrofacturing” methodology scales up to meet global demand.

“We envision a regional approach to ‘Agrofacturing’ in that PHA facilities will be located near plastic converter facilities around the country and even the world,” says Smith, who expects the south Georgia enterprise to “harvest approximately 14,000 acres in April/May of 2015.”

Smith continues, “We will work with the local growers around each PHA facility to source the feedstock for our process. We will let the expert growers do what they do best – providing the crops – so that we can do what we do best – turning those crops into a replacement for plastic.”

Article and images reposted with permission, courtesy of MHG.

About Laura Mauney

Laura Mauney is a writer who thinks she is a photographer. Professionally, she specializes in online marketing, and creating, organizing and managing creative assets and user-friendly information for websites. She is also a mother. Her photo blogs include Flowers in Urbia and Trees in Urbia.

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