This Startup Created A Plastic Alternative From Paper Mill Leftovers

Each year, 12.7 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. Around the world, public entities and advocacy organizations are working toward finding solutions to reduce plastic pollution and create new alternatives.

But can a plastic alternative be strong and biodegradable?

While attending the University of Toledo in Ohio, Tony Bova and Jeff Beegle participated in a fellowship program addressing sustainable energy. While they came up with a few potential solutions, the process made them realize that there’s huge potential within the sustainability industry for innovation.

In 2014, Bova began exploring new types of plastics by using waste by-products from existing industries. That’s when he and Beegle discovered lignin, the glue that holds trees together and a major by-product of the paper and biofuel industries.

After paper mills create products, they end up with a cinnamon-looking powder substance as organic waste: lignin. The team spent the past 18 months testing different strains of lignin and developing a process to make plastic from it.

“We didn’t want to create a burden that is more complex for the waste industry by adding new materials that machines can’t detect or sort. We didn’t want to pollute the recycling stream or have an issue with stuff ending up in a landfill anyway,” says Bova.

Mobius combines lignin and other bio-polymers with their proprietary technology and convert it into biodegradable, compostable plastic pellets. The small black pellets can be used to make flexible plastic films, large sheets, and 3D printing filament.

“Our goal is to be a raw material supplier and work with other industries,” says Bova. “Right now we’re focused on applications in the agriculture and horticulture industries.”

Bova says they want to partner with manufacturers to replace the petroleum-based plant containers sold in home stores’ garden sections around the world.

“About 90 percent of those plastic containers that the flowers come in, end up in a landfill. Even when people recycle them, they don’t know that black plastic is challenging to recycle,” he says.

Mobius’ new plant holder allows the flower or tree to be planted while still in the container; the biodegradable container will decompose in the ground into carbon dioxide, water, and organic compost. The pot only begins to break down once it hits the soil.

“We want to create a system where by using our material, we can have more of a closed loop solution so you can plant the entire plant in your garden. Or if you didn’t want to put the plastic in there, you could take the container and put it in a compost bin,” says Bova.

Aside from the plant pots, Mobius also plans to produce the plastic used to wrap hay and other farm equipment. In the future, Bova hopes to create food service packaging and utensils.

The Knoxville-based startup has a handful of pilots underway with large producers of lignin, greenhouses and manufacturers to test the different uses of the material. They will launch their first commercial sales with key partners in early 2020.

The sustainability startup is awaiting B-Corp certification.

“We feel that we have an obligation to be transparent as to how we make this and where it comes from and why we feel it’s sustainable,” says Bova.

The team has funded their work primarily through grants thus far. They will kick off fundraising at the end of the year to grow their team, especially in  engineering and manufacturing.