Hot Commodities Edition 16: Mycelium Packaging and Chainsaw Chips
Plant Based Products Council
At the end of January, a consortium of businesses and industry associations — including ADM and Cargill, Tate, and Lyle, as well as Hemp Road Trip, Hemp Industries Association, and Tree Free Hemp — formed the Plant Based Products Council, a business and environmental coalition “working to guide the global economy toward more sustainable and responsible consumer products and packaging through greater use of plant-based materials.”
In this edition, we’re highlighting a few products and companies in the plant-based products space, an industry we foresee becoming major commodity sectors.
PLAs and PHAs
Our oceans and seas are literally choking on plastic. The United Nations estimates that 8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. Plastics is an ideal market for boosting plant-based, compostable products, from both an environmental and economic standpoint.
Two of the most common bioplastics currently on the market are polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), which are produced from fermented plants’ sugars, starches, or lipids. In the U.S., they are typically made from corn.
With corn prices over the past five years perpetually low, and with U.S. farmers expected to plant record acreage next year, since soybean basis prices are coming in below cost in many parts of the country, any additional new demand sources for corn for industrial uses would be welcome. Cargill knows this quite well, as one of the largest bioplastic producers, NatureWorks, is a joint venture between the company and Thai-based PTT Global Chemical.
But do the benefits of the most common bioplastics live up to the hype? There are a few major issues with these products.
The first issue is that the branding of “compostable and biodegradable” needs clarification — it should be changed from “Compostable” to “Compostable in an industrial composting facility.” This is a key distinguishing factor. Industrial composting facilities are huge piles of compostable materials. Industrial composting facilities contain a large amount of decomposing matter, which produces heat in excess of 140° F, the threshold to break down these materials, and contains the microbes required to fully decompose the broken-down material. In absence of these conditions -- for example, in a landfill or in the ocean -- these products can remain around for similar time lengths as petroleum-based plastics. Arecent study, which put bioplastics in artificial seawater conditions for a year, found very little degradation for PLA.
The second issue is that these bioplastics are not compatible with plastic recycling, and must be removed from the recycling stream before traditional plastics can be processed. But since China banned all imported recyclable plastics last year, the plastic recycling industry in the U.S. has atrophied, and as little as 20% of plastic end users think that what they are recycling actually makes it to a recycling facility, with the rest either sitting in storage waiting for a destination or ending up in a landfill [PDF].
Both of these main challenges can be overcome primarily by education. New industrial composting facilities continue to pop up around the country, and these facilities should work with bioplastic producers on education, in order to ensure that bioplastics are diverted from landfill and recycling streams to the composting streams. There’s already been significant development in changing the verbage from “compostable” to “compostable in an industrial facility,” with the aim of getting all bioplastics to the correct facilities so that they actually do decompose. (Data on composting facilities if time)
SunChips - A Bag Ahead of Its Time
In 2010, Pepsi Co launched a compostable, PLA-based bag for its SunChips brand of chips. The company launched an extensive marketing campaign around the product launch, providing education on how to compost and the benefits of doing so. But they faced one challenge they didn’t expect.
The bags were entirely too noisy. People freaked out about the crinkling sound, prompting the creation of YouTube videos including Sun Chip Bag-Great Toy For Babies! andSunChips New Bag vs. Chainsaw, which is louder?? The noise the bag created became a national meme, prompting the publication of thousands of web pages decrying the riotous cacophony ruining the peace and quiet of the snack aisle or office kitchen.
Pepsi pulled the product line from shelves and created a newer, less noisy bag, but that was soon pulled as well. Seemingly, the non-noisy bag was too expensive to produce. This is an area the PBPC should re-investigate.
Edible Six-Pack Rings
A Florida brewery called Saltwater Brewery found a way to use barley and wheat ribbons, byproducts from the brewing process, to create six-pack ring holders that are not only biodegradable, but edible for sea species, including turtles, fish, and marine birds — and people, if that’s your thing.
Head of Brand Peter Agardy told CraftBeer.com, “We hope to influence the big guys and hopefully inspire them to get on board.” And getting the big guys on board has finally started to work. Last November, Corona announced they will pilot a plastic-free six-pack holder in select markets.
Byproducts and co-products produced during brewing and distilling, including ethanol production for use in gasoline blending, are often known as distiller’s dried grains and solubles (DDGS) and typically end up in feed ingredient blending or go directly to ranchers. Finding a way to use these byproducts on site while reducing plastic inputs is a promising solution.
With these products, now you only get plastics in your beer, not outside!
One company is using an entirely different kingdom to create a bio-packaging product.
While most products in the space use bacterial fermentation to create polymers or process plant fibers into processed building materials, Ecovative Design is using mycelium, the root structure of fungi, to create packaging and other building and design materials.
The company processes and sterilizes agricultural waste, then inoculates the substrate with a fungi that binds the materials together. The process produces an entirely compostable material that not only breaks down, but is a healthy addition to soils.
Utilizing agricultural waste to create a biodegradable material is the heart of what the PBPC should be about.
Hemp as Promising Solution
As we’ve mentioned in previous editions of Hot Commodities, hemp has been lauded as a promising input for the sustainable packaging markets, with a handful of viable products and companies in commercial operation.
As the industrial hemp market continues to develop, we’ll be highlighting technologies and companies bringing these products to market.
When many blockchain experts talk about the technology being unhackable, they typically mean from a 51% attack, where one entity controls 51% of the blockchain network, and can insert and confirm an altered history of the blockchain. The theory is that with a massively scaled, public network, the resources required to control 51% of any network would not be feasible. But just that happened on a number of the cryptocurrency networks, most notably Ethereum, one of the largest.
Besides the 51% attack, all blockchains are software, and any developer will tell you any piece of code is inherently risky, and bugs have been found on just about every platform.
And finally, even if your code is perfect, there’s a chance that someone holding your crypto CEO might just up and “die.”