The non-agrarian among us may not know this, but petroleum-derived, non-biodegradable, effectively non-recyclable plastic mulch is used extensively in farms across America to control weeds, retain moisture in the soil, and increase crop yields.
My own experience with plastic mulch dates from 2002 when I worked on an herbicide/pesticide-free vegetable farm in northern Virginia. One of the techniques we employed to control weeds was laying down plastic mulch films about 4 feet wide tucked into the soil on both sides to form a bed in long rows up and down the fields. We transplanted acres of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant—you name it—into the beds with a tractor-pulled device that punched holes in the plastic, delivered fertilized water into those holes, and carried two workers low to the ground who could plant trays of transplants in rapid succession. It was quite effective and saved us a world of weeding later in the year. On the downside, at the end of the year, or end of the planting, we had to manually remove the now-dead vegetable plants that had grown on top of the plastic, pull up the plastic by hand, ball it up and take it to the landfill. Not particularly sustainable but if you ever have had to hoe all day in the humid hot Virginia summer—definitely worth it.
Now a Tennessee company, Grow Bioplastics, is working to create an alternative plastic mulch with a greatly improved sustainability profile. Essentially, they are seeking to use lignin, a waste product from the paper and biofuels industries, to create a biodegradable plastic mulch that farmers could literally plow into their fields at the end of the year—saving time and reducing waste.
In January, Grow Bioplastics received a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant for $225,000 to conduct research and development work on Lignin-Biomass Based Biodegradable Plastics for Agricultural Applications.
“The National Science Foundation supports small businesses with the most innovative, cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to become great commercial successes and make huge societal impacts,” said Barry Johnson, director of the NSF’s Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships.
“Being selected for this competitive award from the NSF is a huge step for our company,” said Tony Bova, CEO and co-founder of Grow Bioplastics.
Bova and his co-founder Jeff Beegle are graduates of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and started their company in 2016. They participated in the ACS Green Chemistry Institute’s Business Plan Competition held at the 2016 Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference and won.
“Winning the 2016 ACS Green Chemistry Business Plan Competition had a huge impact on our business, and we wouldn't be where we are today without that experience and funding,” says Tony Bova.
Grow Bioplastics is planning to launch their first products in 2019 which will be plastic pellets that can be processed into blown or cast plastic mulch films and thermoformed or injection molded trays and pots for agricultural and horticultural applications. With the SBIR money, they will be able to hire their first employee and will be collaborating with Glucan Biorenewables, LLC, to use their novel gamma-valerolactone derived lignin streams, and with Dr. David Harper, associate professor at the University of Tennessee Center for Renewable Carbon, to help evaluate the ability of their materials to be processed.
The Phase I NSF SBIR grant also opens up the opportunity to apply for a Phase II grant (up to $750,000). Small businesses with Phase II grants are eligible to receive up to $500,000 in additional matching funds with qualifying third-party investment or sales.
Tony Bova (L) and Jeff Beegle (R), Co-Founders of Grow Bioplastics, with a sample of their lignin-based plastic.
Photo Credit: Adam Brimer/The University of Tennessee
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