From pits to plastic

    A Mexican entrepreneur hopes to make bioplastics even cheaper than their petroleum-based equivalent, thanks to an abundance of avocados

    There’s no formula for scientific innovation. Sometimes, it just happens because the right person reads the right paper on the right day in the right place. This was the case for Scott Munguía, the young founder of a bioplastics maker in Monterrey, Mexico.

    In 2011, as a 21-year-old chemical engineering student at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s top universities, Munguía was cruising through his remaining time at school.

    “I was looking for something to make a business out of, or really, just something to keep me interested as I finished studying,” he said.

    One day, a professor assigned a paper about the chemical composition of bioplastics. This type of plastic is made from biomass—usually corn—and can degrade naturally in a matter of years. The traditional, petroleum-based variety accounts for about 99 percent of the world’s plastic and much of it will still be decomposing for centuries.

    For most students, the structure of the biopolymer in corn that becomes plastic would have been learned and then stored somewhere in the cerebral cortex. Not for Munguía.

    “The very next day, I read a paper about the chemical properties of the avocado seed and I had the luck to read those papers back to back,” he explained, remembering his eureka moment.

    He noticed that the biopolymer in the avocado seed was eerily similar to that of corn. Living in a country that grows nearly half the world’s avocados, Munguía decided to use his free time in the lab to experiment with modifying the avocado polymer to make it look exactly like corn’s.

    Six months later, he had created a new bioplastic. And in that time, he’d realized avocado seeds pile up in Mexico like nowhere else in the world. The country doesn’t just export whole avocados around the globe. Companies mash it into packaged guacamole straight from the tree, leaving behind mountains of useless avocado seeds—about 300,000 tonnes
    per year.

    “Right now, companies are paying to get rid of seeds,” said Munguía. Most end up being burned in landfills, coughing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “For them, it’s great when someone arrives and tells them they’ll take the seeds for free.”

    The success of Munguía’s idea has been overwhelming. It took him just one year to get from the lab to production. Three years later, Biofase has 13 employees and a modest office space in the business incubator of Munguía’s alma mater. Though he won’t reveal figures, he said the company is turning a profit.
    Biofase now produces three different product lines. Its bestseller is plastic resin, which clients put into their own machines to be molded and shaped into disposable items such as cutlery, plates and bottles. There’s a proprietary brand of plasticware; across the street in the university dining halls, you’ll find students munching away with Biofase forks and knives. The company also custom designs plastic products for large-scale clients.

    Munguía said selling companies on bioplastics is easy because everyone wants to look green. The trick is price. Today, his resin sells for about 15 percent more than petroleum-based plastic. But that difference will soon shrink, as Biofase is about to multiply its production 13 times.

    The company is moving to the city of Morelia, in avocado country, and building a plant that will produce more than 600 tonnes a month of resin (the equivalent of 35 million small plastic bottles), making it the largest bioplastics factory in Latin America.

    Its goal is to offer a product that’s 10 percent cheaper than traditional plastic, and Munguía said the economies of scale at the new factory will be a game-changer. He plans to expand his clientele beyond Mexico to the United States, where he’s confident that buyers will get on board when they see how inexpensive his resin is. “I think we’ll be the first producers in the world to sell bioplastic more cheaply than petroleum-based plastics.”

    Munguía isn’t stopping at one innovation. He is back in the lab with several new ideas, such as selective biodegradation, a nascent technology that would allow people to “flip a switch” and start degradation, meaning bioplastics could move past disposable forks and onto durable goods such as tables and chairs.

    He realizes that Biofase’s practical impact is minimal. At full capacity, the factory will still only use a fraction of Mexico’s avocado seed waste. Even if it were able to turn every avocado seed in Mexico into plastic, it would only account for 30 percent of the global bioplastics production, or less than one percent of all plastics.

    But what makes Biofase extraordinary is the fact of taking local waste and transforming it into something sustainable and profitable. Munguía’s hope is that elsewhere in the world, other types of biomass could also hold the building blocks for plastic.

    As for avocados, he has added one more argument to the popular claim that they are the world’s most perfect food.

    By James Fredrick for Sparknews


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