Potatoes, algae replace oil in US company's plastics

December 21, 2009 by Virginie Montet
Frederic Scheer, head of the plastics manufacturer Cereplast, shows his finished plastic resin product at his factory complex in Los Angeles on December 15. Cereplast produce a range of environmentally-neutral plastics which contain no BPA's, suspected of being hazardous to humans since the 1930s.

Frederic Scheer is biding his time, convinced that by 2013 the price of oil will be so high that his bio-plastics, made from vegetables and plants, will be highly marketable.

Scheer, 55, is the owner of Cereplast, a company that designs and makes sustainable from starches found in tapioca, corn, wheat and potatoes.

He has believed for the past 20 years that the price of will eventually make petroleum-based plastics obsolete and clear the way for his alternative.

"The tipping point for us is 95 dollars a barrel," he said. At that price "our product becomes cheaper" than traditional plastic.

"The day where we hit 95 dollars a barrel I think all of a sudden you're going to see bio-plastics basically explode," he said.

According to Scheer, once oil prices are consistently that high, which he expects to be the case around 2013, major chemical companies like Dupont and BASF will have no choice but to join him in bio-plastics.

By 2020, he expects the US market for the plastics to be worth 10 billion dollars, up from its current value of about a billion dollars.

The world market for traditional oil-based plastics is worth 2,500 billion dollars.

Cereplast, which has 25 employees in California and in Indiana, has accumulated a series of patents for the technology it uses to create the bio-plastics.

With annual sales of five million dollars, Cereplast manufactures resins that biodegrade naturally within three months for use in products including cups, plastic lids and packaging.

They also produce "hybrid" resins of polypropylene that are stronger and more durable, for use in cars or children's toys.

"In using our , we basically inject up to 50 percent agricultural renewable resources... giving them a better ," said Scheer.

"Each time you create one kilo of traditional polypropylene, you create 3.15 kilos of carbon dioxide. When we create one kilo of bio-propylene, we create 1.40 kilos of , so clearly you have a substantial saving with respect to greenhouse gases, creating a much better carbon footprint for the product," he said.

Creating plastics that are biodegradable is key, Scheer says, because just 3.5 percent of polypropylene plastic in the United States gets recycled.

Around 70 percent of all plastic waste "ends up in landfills and stays there a very long time," he said.

Americans go through 110 billion plastic or plastic-covered cups each year, using and discarding what the Food Packaging Institute describes as "astronomical numbers" of disposable containers.

"It takes between 70 to 100 million years to make fossil fuel and you are going to use your cup at Starbucks for 45 minutes max," said Scheer.

But using potatoes and corn to produce billions of tonnes of bio-plastics might not be the most sustainable business plan either, as spikes in food prices in 2008 illustrated.

So Scheer is also looking at algae.

"Algae presents the same kind of physical and thermal property that we find in starches," he said. "We can grow algae extremely fast, in very large quantities, at a very low price."

Cereplast hopes to offer a plastic made with algae for commercial sale by the end of 2010 and is projecting its annual sales will have doubled by then.

The success is bittersweet for Scheer, who was born in Paris but has become known as the one of the "grandfathers" of the bio-plastics industry in the United States, rather than his home country.

"The United States are a land of opportunity for the entrepreneur," he said. "I regret that France didn't give me that kind of opportunity."

Explore further: Researchers look to make environmentally friendly plastics

Related Stories

Researchers look to make environmentally friendly plastics

April 17, 2008

Every year, more than 30 billion water bottles are added to America's landfills, creating a mountainous environmental problem. But if research at Missouri University of Science and Technology is successful, the plastic bottles ...

'Green' plastics could help reduce carbon footprint

February 11, 2009

More than 20 million tons of plastic are placed in U.S. landfills each year. Results from a new University of Missouri study suggest that some of the largely petroleum-based plastic may soon be replaced by a nonpolluting, ...

Can Recycling Be Bad for the Environment?

July 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- By now, nearly everyone knows that it is important to recycle. It helps the environment. Even my six-year-old knows that. But what if it doesn't? While it seems pretty straightforward, in most cases, there ...

Iowa State corn/soy plastics to be made into hog feeders

September 20, 2006

Larock, a University Professor of chemistry at Iowa State University, found the thin, square piece he was looking for and smacked it against his hand. This one is made from soybean oil reinforced with glass fibers, he said. ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 21, 2009
Good article and achievement.
Just one problem I'm having with
"The world market for traditional oil-based plastics is worth 2,500 billion dollars"
Is that really supposed to be 2.5 trillion $?
not rated yet Dec 21, 2009
Thats the future a recycled economy. From cars to electronic gadgets. Bio-plastics is not only the one way to reach that. We have a lot of other good materials to do it! In Africa they use more and more wood pellet fuel instead of coal or charcoal. Use Sisal and Hennep in seats in cars rather then using plastic chemical stuff. The principle called "Cradle to Cradle".

Dec 21, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Dec 21, 2009
I've always been skeptical about these bio-alternatives since they would use up our food supply, which never seemed very wise to me. I'm really excited about the algae possibility they present her, as this would not dip into our food and seems easily scalable for mass production. This company is going to take off very soon.
not rated yet Dec 21, 2009
The irony is that the more plastics are made using this method, the less demand there will be for oil (all else being equal). Lower demand = lower price. Seems like a self-defeating proposition. I don't see this technology going anywhere - at least not until they can find a way to produce it a significantly lower cost.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 21, 2009
The irony is that the more plastics are made using this method, the less demand there will be for oil (all else being equal). Lower demand = lower price. Seems like a self-defeating proposition.

Yeaaaah... Self-defeating, as in it will sell in sufficiently large quantities so as to actually lower the price of oil-derived plastics -- and that in an environment of increasingly scarce oil coupled to escalating world-wide demand.

Wow, what a "defeat" you are projecting here! I really hope to be personally "defeated" along such lines, one of these days...
not rated yet Dec 27, 2009
yep pinkelephant makes a good point and i'd like to add that pursueing sustainable resources and energies could lessen the aggresive military invasions of other peoples lands to steal their resources. self defeating much! remember the story of the GE evo eletric car in california in the 90's, sound practices an solutions are there already but self serving arguements by vested interests in keeping the satus quo hinder our peacefull development

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.