Trash to treasure: Startup transforms organic industrial waste into bioplastic

The plastics themselves are biodegradable.

You know the old adage: One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. That theory holds true for Mobius, a company developing technology to transform organic industrial waste into biodegradable plastics. I’ll tell you what’s new with the business after today’s tech headlines…

💰 FUNDING: Madison, Wisconsin-based clean energy startup NovoMoto raised $318,000 in funding from three investors, BizTimes reports. The for-profit social enterprise works to implement clean electricity systems in Africa.

♻️ RECYCLING: Through a partnership with the City of Detroit, the Forbes Under 30 community held a virtual hackathon focused on creating more sustainable and equitable supply chains in Detroit. The recycling team came up with an innovative concept to turn plastic waste into bricks that could be used to construct buildings, playgrounds, and roads. The plastic bricks would be cheaper than traditional bricks and could reduce recycling costs by nearly 90%.

🌱 AGRICULTURE: South Central College in Mankato, Minnesota, received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch a new certificate program dedicated to high-tech farming, the Free Press reports. The program will provide education on the role that advanced technologies such as automation and robotics play in making farming more environmentally friendly, efficient, and profitable.

🌞 SOLAR: The Midwest Solar Expo begins on Monday. Organizers transitioned from an in-person conference to be held in Minneapolis to a virtual event due to pandemic-related health concerns. Registration for the conference — which includes discussions about solar technology advances — is available online.

Now more on Mobius, a company in Knoxville, Tennessee, that was one of six ag tech businesses accepted into the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) last month. Mobius is working on technology that uses renewable, organic waste to make biodegradable plastic products instead of using fossil fuels. Support from the incubator will help Mobius test adding new features to its bioplastic, as detailed below.

THE PROBLEM: Lignin, a naturally occurring substance in plant cells, is considered a waste product in the paper and pulp manufacturing industries. An estimated 100 million pounds of waste lignin is produced globally each year, and the majority is incinerated or landfilled. Simultaneously, commercial agriculture uses a huge amount of single-use plastics — including for plant pots, irrigation tubing, greenhouses, and film for covering plant beds — and only a small portion is reused or recycled.

THE TECHNOLOGY: Mobius uses waste lignin as a primary feedstock for bioplastics, specifically those used in agriculture or horticulture. The bioplastic is pelletized just like petroleum-based polymers, and manufacturers could use the pellets to produce different agricultural products. “We are building the future where there’s wonder in waste, using organic waste as a feedstock for new chemicals and materials,” said Chief Science Officer and Co-Founder Jeff Beegle.

(Mobius’ pelletized plastic. Photo by Adam Brimer, University of Tennessee)

THE IMPACT: In addition to being made from waste material, the bioplastics themselves are biodegradable or compostable. Mobius can tweak the pellets’ composition to different manufacturers’ durability and degradability specifications. Generally, the material should degrade in about six months in an industrial compost facility or two years in outdoor soil. Because lignin is naturally dark-colored, the pellets come out black, eliminating the need for darkening additives like carbon black that are carcinogens. “We’re focused on applications where being biodegradable is a value add and would reduce the total cost of ownership for a plastic product,” Beegle said.

THE BACKSTORY: Beegle met his business partner Tony Bova while they were undergraduates at the University of Toledo. They worked on several sustainability projects together and were instrumental in creating a green fund to finance student and faculty sustainable energy projects. That and the experience of entering a sustainability innovation competition served as the catalyst for starting a company. “While we didn't win that initial competition, for Tony and I that was a starting point: We needed to build a company to take technology out of the lab and into the real world,” Beegle said.

(Mobius CEO Tony Bova and CSO Jeff Beegle. Photo by Adam Brimer, University of Tennessee)

WHAT’S NEXT: Mobius is currently in the pre-revenue R&D phase. It is using support from IN2 to investigate the feasibility of incorporating other organic materials — such as vegetable peels — into its bioplastics to release nutrients that would fertilize plants as the bioplastic degrades in soil. Their initial focus is the lignin reuse technology, but they also received a grant to work on another technology that converts used cooking oil into renewable chemicals. “Our vision for our company is to find new organic waste streams and build new technologies or products around them,” Beegle said. Mobius incorporated as a public benefit corporation and is pursuing B Corporation certification.

Do you know of other startups in the Midwest developing technologies that reduce waste? Send news tips, press releases, and feedback to katie@centered.tech or connect on Twitter @centereddottech.


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