Right now, 8% of the world’s oil is used to make plastics — and oil has to be extracted from the belly of the earth using extremely energy and cost-intensive processes. At the same time, the world’s cities are constantly growing and producing more waste, which is usually dehydrated and trucked off to be dumped. In a planet-positive double-whammy, Micromidas has figured out how to transform raw sewage into a versatile form of plastic that biodegrades in 6-12 months. The new company (they’ve only been around since mid-2008) accomplished the feat by harnessing microbes — specifically, bacteria — to produce a bioplastic resin, which can be processed into a malleable plastic.
“This technology has been bounced around for a while, and has been in existence for over 20 years. We decided to take it from experimental to industrial scale. It wasn’t quite ready for prime time, but we decided to take it to that level,” Micromidas CEO John Bissell told me in a recent interview.
Here’s how it works: after removing water from sewage, the solids (shudder) are put through a system wherein even more water is removed (and sent back to the sewage line) and other solids are drawn off. A ‘consortium’ of bacteria (different organisms address different sewage constituents including sugars, proteins, fats, etc.) get to work, and produce a malleable bioplastic polystyrene akin to a coffee cup top. “It’s the kind of plastic that can be used in packaging of all kinds,” says Bissell.
This is an ideal use for unused waste material which contains valuable, usable ingredients — “Everything you need to make plastic is actually up here, on the surface of the Earth. All the ingredients of sewage have what you need to make plastic,” said Ryan Smith, Micromidas’ CTO and co-founder at a recent Poptech! Conference.
When I asked Bissell about the “ick” factor that has held back projects like turning sewage into drinking water in Southern California (aka ‘toilet to tap’), he said that it wasn’t a big worry. “For the most part, people don’t seem to be concerned. Everybody thinks that someone else is concerned about it, but they aren’t. On the other hand, there’s no reason why we’d try to make food packaging first,” said Bissell.
The company was motivated by a few factors; a combination of business, growing environmental concerns, and timing. “Most people in companies like ours say there’s a mission aspect. For us, the idea is of maximal utilization of biomass and we appreciate that. It’s elegant. And it’s also economically attractive,“ said Bissell. Working with Stanford University students on the biorefinery plant design, they hope to be producing at scale in about a year. While they are keeping mum on who their first clients may be, they say they will be “working with a number of large companies,” moving forward.
Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick and author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press). A green living expert, she contributes to The Huffington Post and Mother Nature Network (MNN.com)