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How is this Idaho company looking to solve plastic waste? You guessed it … potatoes

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Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in the ocean. The debris of less than five millimeters are called “microplastics.” Not a lot is known about microplastics and their impacts but the NOAA Marine Debris Program is studying them. | BY NOAA

IDAHO FALLS (Idaho Statesman) – More than 10 million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year, according to U.S.-based nonprofit Plastic Oceans International.

It can take more than 400 years for plastic to degrade, and 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been manufactured since the mid-1900s, according to National Geographic. Disposing of such a large quantity of plastic waste in the environment has been a question that has stumped scientists for years.

Part of the solution may have been found in Idaho Falls. Since its founding in 2011, global manufacturer BioLogiQ has been working on a way to create eco-friendly plastic products made from renewable materials.

In the most Idahoan way possible, the company turned to potatoes for the answer.

“(In 2011), we started making plastic from potato waste, specifically the starch from the potato waste,” BioLogiQ CEO Steven Sherman told the Idaho Statesman on Thursday. “We then have been, from that time, doing various research and development activities.”

HOW TO MAKE PLASTIC FROM POTATO WASTE

Traditional plastics are composed of polymers — a substance consisting of large molecules repeated many times — such as polyethylene and polystyrene. These polymers can take hundreds of years to degrade, Sherman said.

RELATED | Company conducts two-year experiment in tanks at local aquarium

BioLogiQ doesn’t entirely create its own products or reinvent the wheel but instead inserts its own “iQ technology” into other plastic products, called NuPlastiQ. The iQ technology contains substances like potato, corn starch or naturally sourced glycerin obtained from vegetable oils and animal fats.

When BioLogiQ’s technology is combined with other plastic products, Sherman said, it allows the plastics to degrade faster because microorganisms that eat the plastics have a much easier time breaking down things like starch and glycerin. Up to 30% of a product can include NuPlastiQ, Sherman said.

Plastics without BioLogiQ’s technology take so long to degrade because the molecules are too large for microorganisms to eat. Over time, the plastic eventually breaks down into smaller pieces due to fragmentation, caused by sunlight and oxidation, until it is finally small enough for microorganisms to eat.

“We’re actually making the plastic available to the environment in a way that helps the microorganisms not only eat the iQ product that’s in the plant-based (plastic), but also the other plastic that’s around it,” Sherman said.

Sherman said the company does not have a specific time frame for how long its NuPlastiQ fully degrades due to different natural circumstances such as diverse ecosystems, pH levels and temperature. But he did say that “well over 100 lab studies” have shown it to degrade much faster than regular plastic.

The company has a two-year-long experimentation exhibit at the East Idaho Aquarium that puts a regular plastic and NuPlastiQ product in two separate cages in a fish tank. Visitors of the museum can compare the degradation of the two products and learn more about plastic in the environment.

east idaho aquarium statesman pic
BioLogiQ put plastics inside metal containers in three different tanks at the East Idaho Aquarium: With the string rays, sharks and regular fishes. | East Idaho Aquarium

”I think it’s really been pretty good. Lots of people are curious about them because it’s kind of an odd thing,” East Idaho Aquarium executive director Arron Faires told the Statesman on Friday. “I’ve been to lots of aquariums and none of them really have anything like that.”

Faires said the aquarium was happy to assist in BioLogiQ’s experiment because it allows the aquarium to assist in conservation efforts while also showing customers how long it takes plastic bags to decompose in water.

“When we interact with the public, we’re not at all advocating that you litter the product because any plastic in the environment is not a good thing,” Sherman said. “All we’re saying is that we need to do our best to collect. We need to do our best to recycle.

“If we fail in some of those efforts,” he continued, “then at least you’re building in some technologies to decrease the likelihood that it’s going to accumulate.”

APPLICATIONS IN USE

BioLogiQ’s technology is “shelf-stable,” Sherman said, which means that if it’s in a clean environment — such as a pantry — it won’t break down. But as soon as it encounters a more natural environment, with water and dirt, the microorganisms will begin to break down the product.

One of the main areas BioLogiQ has focused on is the agricultural industry. The company has helped create biodegradable mulch film for use in farmers’ fields.

“The agricultural mulch film is biodegradable,” Sherman said. “If there’s any left on the ground or tilled into the ground, that goes away without leaving any plastic in the ground.”

The company has also worked on inserting its technology into potato bags, bread tabs, and blow-molded bottles, which are often used for health and beauty products. Sherman said they are also working on putting an iQ label with a QR code on all products that include the company’s technology, with the QR code allowing people to read more about the product.

“One of the things that we’ve really tried hard to do, and it’s part of our mission and vision, is to help educate brand consumers about what kind of choices really are out there,” Sherman said. “And not be involved in lots of hype or deception. We’re very clear about what our product does, and we’re very clear about what it doesn’t do.”

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