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Mirel - An Antidote to High Oil Prices?
August 16, 2011
With the price of oil again approaching record highs, government and industry worldwide are pursuing a number of avenues to lessen the impact of higher energy prices. One area that is steadily gaining prominence is the manufacture of biodegradable plastics that are not made from oil-based plastic feedstocks. Telles, a joint venture between Metabolix Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), researches, manufactures, and markets bio-based plastics. Their signature product is Mirel, a bio-based and biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Mirel can be used in place of standard plastics in injection molding, extrusion coating, cast film and sheet, blown film, and thermoforming. Metabolix is also developing a proprietary platform technology for co-producing plastics, chemicals, and energy from crops like switchgrass, oilseeds, and sugarcane.
To find out more about Mirel and the company behind it, BATE talked with Debra Darby, Director of Marketing Communications for Metabolix, at the company’s Lowell, Massachusetts (USA) marketing offices. “[Regarding Mirel], it is important to think about form and functionality,” Darby began. “For example, Mirel holds up well to heat in food service applications, such as in microwaving re-heatables like hot soups, single-serving meals, etc. Most bioplastics, including starch-based products, can’t handle high service use temperatures. Mirel can do what most conventional plastics can do, but the advantage is that when you’re through using it, you can responsibly manage your disposables ⎯ Mirel can be home composted or industrial composted as a biodegradable product, thus eliminating this waste from going into landfills like most plastics do.”
More About Mirel
The engine behind the product is a production plant in Clinton, Iowa (USA) that is capable of producing up to 110 million pounds of product, and has ample room for expansion as market conditions allow. As of mid-2010, the plant was operating and producing on-spec product in the form of its bioplastic resins (the Mirel brand) for a number of customers and prospects.
The relationship Telles has with its customers, however, goes beyond that of a raw material feedstock supplier, according to Darby. The company works closely with both the converter to mold or extrude the Mirel-compounded material into a part, and also with the brand owner, who will use Mirel as a feedstock in the manufacture of a product. “For example, both Papermate and Ball Horticultural Company are [Mirel] brand users,” Darby said.
“Ball Horticultural entered into an agreement in which the company will use Mirel bioplastic sheet grade material for the production of its patented Soilwrap. It’s basically a bottomless plant container that is a substitute for other forms of seedling containers for both commercial and home gardeners,” said Darby. Greg Trabka, product development manager for Ball Horticultural, explained, “The intention was to design a pot that can be planted in the ground. We chose Mirel because it is biodegradable in soil. When you introduce it into the soil, it is seen by microbes as a food source.” SoilWrap enables the gardener to more easily put plants in the ground, boosting customer satisfaction. Both internal and commercial grower trials have demonstrated that the superior drainage and gas exchange permitted by the bottomless SoilWrap design allows many species of plant to grow more quickly than in conventional pots. Mirel provides an alternative to oil-based plastic plant pots and reduces packaging waste. Robert Engle, Telles general manager, said, “SoilWrap is a prime example of a product that not only leverages Mirel’s ability to biodegrade in soil, but also provides added convenience and value to the consumer.”
New Products, New Uses
AL-PACK Enterprises Ltd., a film producer based in New Brunswick, Canada, is launching a new mulch film based on Mirel. The AL-PACK film product will be an industry-first, using Mirel A5004 film for agricultural and horticultural purposes where controlled biodegradability in soil is the primary benefit. The new product will be rolled out in time for the fall 2011 retail tradeshows for home gardeners, with additional plans to offer an industrial mulch film product in the near future. Vernon Allen, owner of AL-PACK Enterprises, explained, “The Mirel resin was the ideal choice due to its high bio-based content and its ability to biodegrade in the soil within one growing season.”
Agricultural films can help improve farming productivity, and their use has been shown to extend crop growing seasons, while hampering weed growth and improving water efficiency. Mirel-based agricultural film can be tilled into the soil at the end of a growing season, eliminating the time-consuming chore of removing the film for disposal in landfills, the fate of petroleum-based films. “Through the Mirel line of bioplastic materials, Telles offers agricultural and horticultural product manufacturers an alternative to petroleum based plastics, enabling the company to differentiate its offerings and provide consumers with more sustainable options,” Engle said.
In another example of new uses for Mirel, Lakeside Plastics Ltd., a film converter headquartered in British Columbia, Canada, will be launching a compostable bag product line based on Mvera B5002, a compostable film product made from a proprietary blend with Mirel bioplastics. Lakeside will be using the product in large-volume applications, including yard waste and consumer kitchen compost bags.
“We are very excited with the superior performance of Mvera B5002 film in terms of strength, rapid compostability, and that it meets or exceeds ASTM standard D6400 for compostable plastics,” said Stuart MacDonald, chief operating officer with Lakeside. “Through Lakeside, we are bringing a tough and faster composting film material to the market,” explained Engle. “Mvera B5002 film for compost bags has the strength that consumers are asking for. With the rapid composting and D6400 certification … Mvera is an excellent material choice for both consumer and commercial organic waste diversion needs.”
TECNARO GmbH, a developer and manufacturer of sustainable thermoplastics, is incorporating Mirel into its Arboblend line of thermoplastic compounds that are biodegradable in certain environments, including industrial composting and anaerobic digestion systems, using Mirel F1005 and P1003 injection molding grades. Mirel F1005 is cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in non-alcoholic food contact applications; packaging applications, including caps and closures; and disposable items like cutlery, tubs, trays, jars, and other consumer products.
TECNARO customers are currently using Arboblend for a variety of products in the household and sporting goods markets. The new offering will combine Mirel with other biopolymers, including lignin, starch, cellulose, organic additives, natural resins or waxes, and natural reinforcing fibers. It will then be processes with injection molding, extrusion, deep drawing/thermoforming, or pressing into molded parts, sheets, or films.
“Mirel has several qualities that make it particularly suitable for our Arboblend compound, such as its high temperature resistance and its mechanical properties,” said Helmut Nagele, managing director, Tecnaro. “It is also bio-based and biodegradable, which presents us with a variety of end-of-life options, including industrial composting and anaerobic digestion.
For more information, Thompson Reuters Streetevents has posted a transcript of a recent Metabolix presentation. Excerpts from that presentation can be accessed at www.streetevents.com