Monday, December 10, 2007

Brown can be the new green, and perhaps much more

Portland Press Herald

The humble Maine potato is plowing new ground, and the final result is plastics.

Don Flannery
December 9, 2007

An emerging technology is making headlines in Maine:
turning potatoes into plastics.

Actually, this viable and promising alternative for the plastics
industry is making news nationwide.

Media outlets ranging from the Portland Press Herald/Maine
Sunday Telegram to The Associated Press to MSNBC are covering
what's known as biopolymers, or bioplastics -- a new generation
of biodegradable and compostable plastics derived from
renewable plant sources.

It's an exciting concept that is quickly gaining support and
momentum. The Maine Potato Board, representing nearly 400
growers from Fort Kent to Fryeburg, is among the many asking,
"Could Maine capture the leadership position in the biopolymers

A preliminary feasibility study released by the Margaret Chase
Smith Policy Centers this summer points to a positive answer.

In short, Maine potatoes are an economically viable source for
new production of bioplastics.

Our farmers are pleased to be part of this endeavor. We are
especially encouraged because the private sector is driving this
project and because it stands to advance sustainability, promote
economic development and provide farmers a fair return on their

Having said this, we feel equally compelled to share two

First, we must temper our enthusiasm. The field of biopolymers
is in its infancy and the road to full commercialization and
widespread acceptance is expected to be challenging.

While plastics are already being made out of renewable sources,
such as corn, this represents a tiny fraction of the overall

Success in biopolymers hinges on our proceeding with caution
and doing things right the first time.

We must follow in the footsteps of a savvy distance runner who
knows better than to start out too fast. We must recognize the
journey ahead and take into account, foremost, economics,
performance, and safety.

To create a sustainable biopolymers industry, we have to ensure
an economic advantage for our farmers, private industry and
end users.

There are bends in the road ahead. Already we've identified
issues surrounding durability and infrastructure, and there will
be others. But none of these are insurmountable, provided we
run the distance.

This leads to my second point: Those who run the distance
almost always cross-train. We, too, must do the same.

Maine's potato industry is mature, and we must continually
uphold our commitment to innovation, looking for new markets
and exploring new uses for potatoes.

Cold River Vodka, a Maine-based distillery that uses potatoes, is
a great example.

It is vitally important that we all step back -- the farming
community, private industry, elected officials, and individual
citizens -- and view potatoes to plastics as part of a bigger

The greater vision is to expand Maine's overall agriculture base
and increase value-added opportunities for an industry so
embedded in our state's history, present, and future.

State support for research and development under the umbrella
of innovation for agriculture as a whole, not just potatoes, is

Farming touches all of us. It is central to our culture and our

The potato industry alone weighs heavily on Maine's prosperity,
accounting for $540 million in sales, 6,100 jobs, $230 million in
income and $32 million in state and local taxes just last year.

Agriculture remains a stable and significant force in Maine.

We can easily produce enough potatoes to launch a biopolymers
cluster and, again, we are excited by this opportunity, especially
if proven economically favorable.

Our pledge as we move forward with the next phase of research
and development, however, is to always hold a keen eye toward
innovation at large. We invite others to do the same.

We can imagine nothing greater than to bring potatoes to
plastics from concept to commercialization within the next five
years, and to have it be one of many great success stories
regarding Maine farming and rural economic development.

Brown. It's the new green. And, we hope, so much more.

-- Special to the Telegram

Copyright © 2007 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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