In Dec 2009, patrons of the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC experience a mild jolt of biological future shock when their pre-performance and intermission drinks- their beers, wines and sodas – were served to them in a new type of clear plastic cup. The cups looked exactly like any other transparent plastic cup produced from petrochemicals, except for a single telling difference: each one bore the legend, ‘Plastic made 100% from plants’. Plants?? Indeed. The plastic, known as Mirel, was the product of a joint venture between Metabolix, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, bioengineering firm, and Archer Midland, the giant food processing company that had recently constructed a bioplastics production plant in Clinton, Iowa. The plant had been designed to churn out Mirel at the rate of 110 million pounds per year.
Chemically, Mirel was a substance known as polyhydroxybutyrate PHB, which was normally made from the hydrocarbons found in petroleum. But starting in the early 90s, Oliver Peoples, a molecular biologist who was a cofounder of Metabolix, began looking for way to produce polymers like PHB by fermentation, by the action of genetically altered microbes on a feedstock mixture. After 17 years of research and experimentation and having been laughed out the doors of several chemical companies, Peoples had developed an industrial strain of a proprietary microbe that turned corn sugar into the PHB platic polymer……….
….If any of the plastic cups used at the Kennedy Center ended up in the Potomac River, they would break down and be gone forever in a matter of months (Biodegradation is not necessarily the panacea it was once thought to be, since it releases greenhouse gases, while non-degradation, ironically, sequesters carbon)….
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