A Green Challenge and Opportunity: Plastic Made From Greenhouse Gas

Since the birth of my son last year, my tolerance for cringe-worthy grossness has definitely gone up. But whenever I see my baby chewing on a plastic toy, cup -- or whatever else happens to be in his path -- I turn into one of those fanatical plastics moms. I'm the kind of person who flinches at the use of disposable plastic silverware. I have been known to scold people who answer "yes" when the grocery clerk asks if they want a bag, and I regularly rescue plastic bottles from trash cans for recycling.

Every mom asks questions about the plastic in her house: where it came from, who made it, what exactly it's made of and how many nonrenewable resources went into its manufacture. As an environmental engineer, I can tell you that many of the answers can be frightening. But thanks to an innovative contest for world-changing green ideas, my company, Mango Materials, will change those answers -- for families, companies and the whole economy.

The Dutch Postcode Lottery is the third largest private donor in the world, and every year they hold the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge. This year, they received over 500 submissions of business plans for sustainable, creative, innovative businesses that will reduce CO2 emissions. And yesterday we were honored to learn that we won. The prize brings both worldwide exposure and an award of over $630,000.

Mango Materials produces non-toxic, biodegradable plastics that will reduce global warming and can be used for many applications, including anything that could wind up in your child's mouth. Current plastics are produced from non-sustainable petrochemicals and persist indefinitely in landfills.

Our bioplastic is made by bacteria using methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas that is 20 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. Biodegradable and biobased plastics are in high demand due to increasing government regulations on plastics, a desire to reduce dependence on oil and consumer preferences for green products. We produce pellets of poly-hydroxyalkanoate (PHA), which can be converted into a variety of plastic products such as children's toys, electronic casings, water bottles and food packaging.

Methane is abundantly available and often considered "waste." It is frequently produced as a byproduct at waste treatment and agricultural facilities. In contrast to most existing bioplastics, ours is manufactured without genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or food crops. And, critically, our process is economically competitive with conventional, oil-based plastics.

Our bioplastic will replace conventional plastics that accumulate in the environment and in landfills, harming ecosystems and consuming space and resources. Mango Materials' bioplastic naturally biodegrades back to methane; thus, the process can be a completely closed loop, cradle-to-cradle solution with a significant impact on the worldwide plastics market. And, by providing an incentive for methane capture, it will promote the sequestration of millions of pounds of this greenhouse gas.

There is a multi-billion dollar global plastics market, and we will have far-reaching impacts through applications ranging from packaging to consumer-goods to temporary housing in developing countries.

It's been a long journey from the lab at Stanford University, where my colleagues and I came up with the idea for Mango Materials while we were PhD students there. We have felt for a while that we have a world-changing idea, and now we have the chance to make that change.

Plastics are everywhere and are made of some pretty nasty chemicals, and I hate that my 15-month-old is exposed to them on a daily basis. Winning the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge gives us the opportunity to transform everyday items and everyday lives.