Not all plastics are created equal. Some are the bane of the environment. Oil is pumped out of the ground, "cracked" under high heat and pressure, and the resulting chemicals are formed into drink bottles, computer keyboards, and other goods. Disposing of them often releases toxins, cripples sea life, and wreaks other kinds of environmental havoc.
Other plastics are now being designed that are manufactured by microbes and disappear back into the environment once we’re done with them. One class of such biodegradable plastics known as PHA, (that stands for polyhydroxyalkanoates), has come into its own. Although around for decades, new ways to build PHA molecules—essentially long strings of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms—by harnessing microorganisms have made PHA competitive with commercial, oil-based plastics.
Newlight Technologies is one of the first companies to tout its eco-friendly (and "carbon negative" plastic) made with unique "biocatalysts"—essentially the biochemical machinery of specially trained bacteria. These microbes turn waste gas, or even normal air, into plastic by recombining oxygen and carbon molecules into the shape of bottles, dashboards, or other plastic products.
And they’re reportedly doing it on the cheap. "The most important thing about what we’re doing, even more than the environmental impact, is the economics," says Mark Herrema, the cofounder and CEO. Newlight, founded in 2003 by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities, believes it can compete with oil-based plastics solely on price since it has increased the efficiency of its PHA-producing microbes by 500% compared to decades of laboratory experiments.
"We’ve been at this since 2003," says Herrema. "[Now] we’re ramping up production. Frankly, we can’t make enough of this stuff. … As soon as we make it, it’s out the door."
Newlight is not the only one. Liquid fuels and petroleum substitutes made from waste gasses are hitting the market. And others are developing their own biochemical pathways for bioplastics. Mango Materials, a new startup winning awards for its green business plan, plans to use methane as the raw material for its own biodegradable plastic. Mango’s specialized microbes consume methane, once flared and forgotten by sewage plant and oil rigs, into biopolymer molecules that are harvested from bacteria cells.
The potential, says Molly Morse, the founder of Mango Materials, could remake the industry. "We estimate 30% of plastics could be substituted with bioplastics," she says. "Not everything makes sense, but I think bioplastics are the wave of the future."