April 19, 2012

Kerem Durdag, showing conference participants a Marine boot. Biovation makes bioplastic pads that help dry the boots. Photo by Amanda Sears.

In the town of Boothbay, a cutting edge manufacturing facility is turning plastic fibers made from plants into medical supplies. In Old Town, a struggling pulp mill has new life thanks to a “biorefinery” that converts wood chips into sugars, which are nature’s chemical building blocks. And in Waterville, a company produces plastic mulch that is 100 percent compostable in the farm field.

Green chemistry and bio-based manufacturing aren’t just buzzwords in Maine anymore. They’re a very real and growing part of the economy.

In April leaders of Biovation, Old Town Fuel and Fiber, Cerealus and other Maine-based companies gathered for a conference at the Biovation manufacturing facility in Boothbay. The conference, “From Plants to Products: Seizing Maine’s Market Share in the Bio-Based Economy,” was organized by the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine.

Participants discussed success stories and lessons learned from the production and sales of bio-based products, as well as market opportunities and the tremendous potential for Maine companies to advance in this field. Key speakers included U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Andrew Soare, a market analyst from Lux Research in New York City.

“The shift away from oil, toward bio-based chemicals and materials, represents the future of our global economy,” said Michael Belliveau, Vice President of the Council. Belliveau noted that corporate sustainability goals, growing demand from consumers for safer greener products, and the volatile price of oil continue to drive investment in bio-based manufacturing.

“Maine is really well positioned to make the most of these driving forces,” said Belliveau. “We have the natural resources, the forests and farmland. We have the labor force and the manufacturing infrastructure, too much of which is idle. And we also have the ‘Made in Maine’ brand, which tells consumers that these are products they can trust.”

Pingree spoke to conference participants about federal funding opportunities for bio-based products. Pingree is a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, which oversees the USDA programs that promote use and production of bio-based products.

Soare gave the keynote address. It was the first time that an expert on the bio-based materials market has visited Maine to meet with entrepreneurs and to provide a comprehensive overview of market opportunities.

“It is an honor for us to host this event and to provide a venue to discuss and confer about our challenges, to celebrate our successes and to see how collaboratively we can roadmap our biopolymer cluster efforts together,” said Kerem Durdag, CEO of Biovation LLC, a manufacturing company that makes food packaging and wound care products using bio-based plastics.

The sponsors of the “Plants to Products” conference were Biovation LLC, Environmental Health Strategy Center, Cerealus LLC, Tom’s of Maine, Oakhurst Dairy, Us and Company Computers.

Immediately following today’s conference, the Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine held its annual meeting. Two members were re-elected to the Board of Directors: Michael Bilodeau, director of the Process Development Center in the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department at the University of Maine; and Mark Dolbrovolny, director of research and product development at Tom’s of Maine. Two members were elected to the Board of Directors: James Chittum, director of business development at Grow-Tech LLC; and Darrell Waite, manager for the biorefinery process at Old Town Fuel and Fiber.

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The Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine is a trade association seeking to create jobs and business opportunities to meet the rapidly growing market demand for bio-based plastics. Based on renewable resources rather than petroleum, bioplastics can meet the consumer need for a more environmentally sustainable material at comparable cost and performance.