Plastics are a favorite target for environmentalists because they're slow to biodegrade, typically require petroleum to create, and eat up a lot of landfill space. But imagine if the material actually helped reduce greenhouse gases. That's the type of product that Novomer, a startup spun off from Cornell University, has created. Its plastics are made largely from CO2 captured from factories and are suitable for everything from disposable utensils to industrial coatings.
This sounds too good to be true, and in a way, it is. For now, Novomer's plastics still require some molecular building blocks known as epoxides, which are derived from oil, and are only "50% to 65% carbon dioxide," says CEO Jim Mahoney. But researchers are working on developing plant-based epoxides, so Novomer could eventually eliminate oil entirely.
Another question is whether the company's plastics should be biodegradable. Mahoney says that they can be, but that the CO2 would then be re-released back into the atmosphere. Many potential Novomer partners, he says, "are thinking they'd rather have CO2 locked up in a plastic or polymer, which can be recycled."
Novomer has introduced one product so far — a "sacrificial binder" used in the production of electronics — and expects to release many more in the next 12 to 18 months. Mahoney says that pickup has been relatively swift in part because, he claims, Novomer's products are less expensive than bioplastics made from corn — and friendlier to the earth because they've replaced the inputs (land, water, fertilizer) with what's typically thought to be a waste product. "We think we have the most environmentally responsible plastic out there," he says. "It gets CO2 out of the atmosphere and makes it something of value."
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A version of this article appeared in the November 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.