What's the fix for a warming planet? Just one word: Plastics.
As the world grapples with greenhouse gas emissions still rising despite years of political wrangling over how to combat global climate change, a technology to convert carbon dioxide and methane into plastic is emerging as one potential market-driven solution. To boot, the process can be less expensive than producing plastics from petroleum.
"You have a new paradigm where plastics are saving the economy a whole lot of money, they are replacing oil, and in the process we are actually sequestering carbon emissions that would otherwise go into the air," Mark Herrema, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Newlight Technologies in Irvine, Calif., explained to NBC News.
The market for plastics is massive — and thus the ability to sequester carbon. Plastics are found everywhere from beverage and food containers to toys, furniture and car parts. About 280 million tons of the stuff is produced every year, according to industry statistics.
The caveat is this: only about 10 percent of the plastic generated each year is recycled. The rest is trashed or escapes to the environment where it is a persistent environmental pollutant.
"They can make plastic out of potatoes, or peaches, or switchgrass, or carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The price of carbon is all the industry cares about," Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute in Long Beach, Calif., told NBC News. "The polluting nature of plastic, and the proliferating of plastic waste, is unaffected by the source of the plastic."
The engines behind the greenhouse gas to plastic conversion technology are microorganisms that feed on methane or carbon dioxide pumped into vessels of liquid. The microbes — some enhanced through genetic engineering, others improved via selective breeding – accumulate a biopolymer inside their cell walls as they feast.
"We influence these bacteria to get as fat as quickly as possible and then we harvest that biopolymer that is inside their cell walls," Molly Morse, the founder and chief executive officer of Mango Materials in Palo Alto, Calif., told NBC News. "That biopolymer comes out in powder form and you can pelletize it and then you have the raw ingredients to make other plastic goods."
A similar microbial-driven process takes place inside the vessels used by Newlight Technologies, according to Herrema. The breakthrough for his company came by engineering its system to produce enough high-quality polymer to make the technology economically viable without having to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers.
"I can go to someone in Texas or the Midwest and whatever they feel about climate change, everyone likes to replace oil and reduce cost, and so it sells itself," he said. The benefit of sequestering greenhouse gases becomes an afterthought, he added.
Using methane from sources such as landfills and wastewater treatment plants to make the plastic, noted Morse, is at least six times more economical than using the gas, for example, to generate heat or electricity. Many industrial facilities are legally required to capture methane emissions, noted Morton Barlaz, a civil, construction and environmental engineer at North Carolina State University.
"Having markets for that methane is a good thing as long as you are using that methane to make something that you are going to make anyway, in this case a plastic," he told NBC News.
Environmental pros and cons
According to Morse, the biopolymer produced by Mango Materials is biodegradable – it is designed to break down in the marine environment, compost piles, and landfills. In fact, the company is pursuing clients in markets "where biodegradability is key," she said. This includes plastic films used on farms and as an exfoliant in cosmetic products that often slip through wastewater treatment plants out to sea.
Newlight Technologies produces a biodegradable grade of its plastic as well, though several of its clients, according to Herrema, are opting for recyclable grades instead. All grades, he noted, have been certified by third-party carbon accounting firms as carbon negative — that is the products "sequester more carbon than they emit during the production process."
Marquee products made with Newlight's plastic pellets include computer bags for Dell, cell phone cases for Sprint and a chair for furniture manufacturer KI.
"There are pluses and minuses here," Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, said of the greenhouse gas to plastic technology in an email to NBC News. "At the one level, capturing what would otherwise be (methane) emissions into products is a big step forward."
For his part, Moore declined to choose between what he called the "bad alternatives" of more greenhouse gases or plastics, but noted that in a list of all the maladies facing humanity including climate change and infectious disease, "the one pollutant that may cause humans to be unable to reproduce is plastic."