With bioplastics, Cereplast aims to make consumer products sustainable

Cereplast founder Frederic Scheer wants to change the world with bioplastics. SmartPlanet stops in to check in on his quest and evaluate the market.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

The legacy of of humans living thousands of years ago is beautiful and priceless art for which we travel across the globe to see in museums.

The legacy of humans living today? Tons upon tons of garbage, much of it plastic, thanks to our modern-day technology and associated consumption habits.

Not exactly priceless.

If we strung together the yearly use of drinking caps, we'd be able to go to the moon and back 250 times, according to Cereplast founder Frederic Scheer.

I haven't thought about plastic the same way since I spoke with Scheer last Friday afternoon in the dimly-lit lobby of the a Hilton Hotel in Manhattan.

Now, ordering a Starbucks iced coffee -- which comes in a plastic cup -- makes me feel bad.

Getting takeout for lunch in a plastic container and eating it with a plastic spoon and fork? Even worse.

The plastics we use -- and often fail to reuse or recycle -- are everywhere. The problem, of course, is that some of these plastics end up in a landfill in the short-term and take hundreds of years to decompose in the long-term.

Or worse, that plastic bag from the supermarket would end up floating out to join the giant garbage patch in the Atlantic Ocean. Scheer says diapers at the bottom of the ocean can take 600 years to degrade -- but it would take the diapers 70 million years to transform back into its original form of oil.

Some dinosaur fossils are about that old.

Scheer is a kind of new age environmentalist. Last week, Scheer rung the opening bell for the NASDAQ stock market, demonstrating how far he has taken his bio-based plastics manufacturing business.

Cereplast makes compostable resin that can biodegrade in less than 180 days in a compost site. The company produces 16 million pounds of bioplastic a year, Scheer said.

That's an impressive number, but it's just a drop in the bucket compared to the 1 trillion pounds of plastic produced each year worldwide.

Scheer predicts bioplastics will make up 30 percent of the market in the next 15 to 20 years.

It may seem like a no-brainer now, but the need for a plastic alternative wasn't always so obvious, Scheer said.

"The hardest part about going into the bioplastic industry to begin with, was that nobody understood me," Scheer said.

From the 1950s through 2000, oil traded between 50 cents and $6 per barrel. But in the past 10 years, it has been hovering between $35 and $150 a barrel. Rising oil prices have put financial pressure on the chemical industries that, in turn, have allowed them to appear more environmentally conscious.

In 2000, Scheer said he saw an opportunity open for developing bioplastics. At the time, he was working as an investment banker.

A year later, Cereplast was born.

Today, the manufacturing plant makes 17 different compostable resins that can be put into products and composted after use. They can be used in packaging for short term. The company also makes four hybrid resins to be used for more durable applications, such as automobiles and consumer products.

As I mentioned before, one resin prototype is made with 30 to 50 percent algae powder and the rest with polypropylene or another resin.

Eventually, the company wants to make a 100 percent algae plastic. But that won’t be possible for at least another five to 10 years -- the market right now isn't yet ready for a steady supply of algae biomass.

For now, Scheer's company just makes the resin, not the complete bioplastic product. It's up to other companies to find ways to use it. For example, French food multinational conglomerate Danone -- that's Dannon, stateside -- is interested in bioplastic for its yogurt products, so packaging used during shipping will degrade in just 60 days.

Can Scheer be the Willy Wonka of bioplastics? The material has already made its way into 3D glasses, dinnerware, children's toys and cutlery. What is next?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards