Metabolix Looks at Turning Sugarcane into Plastic

Queensland’s sugar industry will get a boost today when an American industrial biotechnology company will sign a landmark agreement with a Queensland research centre to research and develop bioplastic directly in sugarcane.

Queensland Minister for State Development John Mickel will attend the signing of the agreement between Boston-based Metabolix Inc and the Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology, based at the University of Queensland.

“This could well pave the way for the sugar industry’s involvement in future bioplastics industries and other sought after bio-based products,” Mr Mickel said.

“Metabolix currently produces natural plastic from renewable, biodegradable resources, such as corn, providing a renewable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. I think this type of product will become more and more popular as environmentally-aware consumers turn more and more to environmentally-friendly products such as this.

“And for our sugar industry, it bodes well in that it potentially opens another market, and a potentially lucrative one at that.”

The value of plastic products is over US$60 billion a year in the US alone.

“Yet virtually none of this is sustainable. Current polymer products are nearly all derived from petrochemical sources and the industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, both in the production of plastics and when they are incinerated at the end of their life-cycle.

“Replacing traditional plastic products with bioplastics can both cut down on the energy needed for manufacturing and help reduce waste, improve air quality, conserve petroleum supplies, and reduce cleanup costs.”

CRC for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology CEO Dr Peter Twine said the CRC and Metabolix would work together to further research to produce bioplastics directly in sugarcane.

“Plastic plays a major role in the world economy, but present petroleum-based plastics are unsustainable and in the future, will become less economical as supplies start to dwindle,” Dr Twine said.

“What we are seeing here is acknowledgement of the potential of biodegradable plastics and support for the potential role of Queensland’s most valuable plant crop, sugarcane, in a future bio-based economy which is renewable and sustainable,” he said.

Dr Twine said the joint agreement would focus on the groundwork needed to develop sugarcane directly producing PHA natural plastics, a broad and versatile family of polymers that can be converted into a wide range of products, including consumer disposables, cups and lids, packaging items, bags and so on.

“PHAs have an excellent shelf life and are resistant to hot liquids, greases, and oils. Additionally they are biodegradable in aquatic, marine and soil environments and under anaerobic conditions such as found in septic systems and municipal waste treatment plants. They can be hot and cold composted,” he said.

Mr Mickel and the Premier are leading a Queensland biotechnology industry delegation at BIO2007 in Boston.

BIO2007 is the world’s largest biotechnology convention and exhibition and draws about 20,000 industry, scientific and government representatives from around the world.

Since 1998 the Queensland Government has committed $1.5 billion to life sciences and biotechnology in the State, including research funding, the construction of dedicated facilities, the establishment of bioindustry business hubs, and assistance with the commercialisation of biotechnological discoveries as consumer products.

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