Conventional plastic sticks around in landfills and oceans for several hundreds of years, and is also produced using petroleum, a raw material that not only is limited, but has numerous competing uses. Mango Materials, a Larta alumnus company has developed a process that produces biodegradable plastic using waste methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Molly Morse, CEO, tells us, “Our mission is to turn waste into ecofriendly, affordable plastics while creating a positive environmental impact, and to this end we have developed a highly efficient conversion process wherein we feed bacteria waste methane gas to produce biodegradable plastics, using bacteria for the conversion process. We feed bacteria waste methane gas and they produce a biodegradable, bio based polymer plastic called PHA.” In addition to being nontoxic, this plastic has very similar mechanical properties to regular plastic, so it’s great for molded plastic products such as food packaging, babies toys, electronics, anything really. What makes it really different is that it biodegrades even in marine and anaerobic environments, essentially meaning that it will break down whether it is thrown into a landfill, or the ocean. It also biodegrades within as little as 2 weeks in a managed environment, compared to 47 to 90 days for PLA plastic, another biodegradable plastic option made from corn.
Not only does Mango Material’s produce an end product that is better for the environment, it does so using feedstock that is well known as a potent greenhouse gas contributing to the alarming rate of global warming on our planet. Molly shared some startling numbers, “Using the waste methane gas that would otherwise be released into the environment for a beneficial process, such as producing biodegradable plastic, you are looking at an absorption of 2200-4400 tonnes of methane, and creation of over 1100 tonnes of plastic. In addition, if the unused, vented methane from California landfills was collected and used for PHA feedstock, over 100 million pounds of plastic would be produced each year, enough to manufacture over 3 billion plastic water bottles.”
Mango Materials was founded around intellectual property from Stanford University, including some work that Molly did during her PhD. Recognizing early on that the founding team had great technical expertise, but might be somewhat limited in their business expertise, they competed in the Cleantech Open, the world’s largest business plan competition for cleantech companies. That experience led them to realize that they needed to determine if people would pay for the really cool technology they had developed. Their first key source of funding was an NSF phase I SBIR grant, through which they worked with Larta. Molly tells us, “Mango Materials has been extremely fortunate to have dedicated assistance through the beginning states of the commercialization process. Having a Larta principal advisor has been beneficial by reminding our highly technical team to always consider the customer and to begin these discussions early-on. Recognizing the valuable interactions with customers has been essential for developing our early business success.”
They used the NSF funding in early 2012 to determine how efficient it would be to scale it up their production process and conducted some field tests. Around May 2012 they discovered that this process was economically advantageous, and could be commercialized. Molly recounts, “This allowed us to approach more customers, who are very interested in testing our material on a larger scale. Specifically, we are talking to potential customers in the food packaging and eco packaging space.”
They went on to enter the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, a business plan competition focused on early stage businesses that have the potential to curb climate change. They won the 500,000 EUR grand prize, selected from over 500 business plans across 79 countries. Speaking to the future for Mango Materials, Molly tells us, “For a small cash strapped early stage company that is looking to scale up production, the prize money is great because it is non-dilutive and not earmarked for a specific purpose, allowing us to use it for anything ranging from legal fees to salaries or new equipment.”
The next step for Mango Materials is to scale up and have enough samples to be used on the production line, and while they have done some small scale test runs, they are hoping to produce enough plastic to do a large scale production line test run in the immediate future. Molly and the rest of the team at Mango Materials is focused on identifying the right partner for this test, and the future looks to be extremely promising, and full of promise for this potential game changer in the plastics industry.