Mark Herrema didn’t always hate plastic forks. It took years for him to develop this disdain. But mounting evidence eventually convinced him that plastic—in all its various shapes and forms—was one of the world’s greatest environmental threats. Herrema wanted to rid the world of plastic, one planet-choking fork at a time.
The catalyst for his anti-plastic offensive came from an unlikely source—a cow named Lucy. After reading an article citing the specific volume of methane emitted per cow per year (around 600 air-contaminating liters), Herrema had an idea.
“If we could find a way to turn carbon that would otherwise be in the air into useful products,” Herrema says, “we would have a pathway to reducing the amount of carbon in the air.”
This idea has become a major tenet of what’s called “carbon-negative manufacturing,” which is just what it sounds like: making products without contributing to the growing global environmental crisis. Herrema wanted to not only create something that would combat plastic, but also pull it off without doing more harm than good.
But two major questions remained: How to do it, and how to do it to scale? Finding an answer would take nearly 17 years. But now his company’s inventions are ready for the world.
Reinventing Nature to Save Nature
While rainforests may be the lungs of the world, oceans are also a crucial carbon sink, soaking up 25 percent of all carbon emissions.
To find his plastic replacement, Herrema and his friend Kenton Kimmel, who was a biomedical student at the time, pored over scientific publications and discovered that some microorganisms in the ocean eat methane and carbon dioxide. Most significantly, these organisms then use that carbon to grow.
“When they grow, one of the things they make inside their cells is this material called PHB,” says Herrema. “It’s made in almost all known living things, including the human body. But because it’s meltable, you can use it to replace plastic.”
In 2003, Herrema and Kimmel founded Newlight, a Southern California company with a mission to capitalize on PHB. That’s when the real work began: They needed to figure out a system to coax masses of tiny bacteria to eat a greenhouse-gas diet, and then corral the resulting natural polymers. For more than a decade, and after much trial and error, Newlight set up a system that would mimic this oceanic conversion on land.
The process involves filling 50-foot steel tanks with a saltwater solution. Ocean-derived microorganisms are added, and then methane and air are mixed into the solution so the microorganisms can feast on a greenhouse lunch. The creatures make the PHB material, after which the organisms are collected and run through a high-pressure filtration process. That process separates the microorganisms from the PHB material. The result is what Newlight calls “AirCarbon.”
The material is dried into a fine white powder that’s heated in an extruder, where it turns into a molten strand. The cooled strand is cut into pellets that can be processed through a range of equipment, just like standard plastic. With injection molding, for example, the pellets can be used to make a variety of items, including faux-plastic forks.
Herrema feels that the most significant aspect of Newlight’s technology is that it helps people transition from damaging synthetic materials to natural materials. Which is good for humans and the environment.
We know about the visible plastic debris floating in our oceans: Fishing nets, plastic bags, bottles, straws, and cigarette-butt filters are a problem. But scientific analysis shows that microplastics—the particles derived from the breakdown of that debris—are even worse.
There’s no practical way to clean up microplastics, and research suggests that most plastic in the ocean will never fully degrade. Enter AirCarbon: The big benefit of this material is that it’s fully marine degradable. The ocean finally gets a break.
Joseph Greene of California State University has graded Newlight’s homework. Greene is a professor of engineering who has been researching biodegradable plastics since 2005. “I’m helping companies understand what the behavior of their plastic material is in the marine environment,” says Greene.
Greene says PHA is a family of simple plastics, with very small molecules, easily digestible by tiny animals in the ocean. Newlight’s material, PHB, is the most popular form because its rubberlike qualities make it more useful. “The question is, what happens to this plastic material? It has to first fall apart in very small pieces,” he says. “Second, those pieces have to be a food source for the bacteria in the ocean.”
Greene says that Newlight’s PHB has met the standards for marine biodegradability and that the material will even break down, though slowly, in a home composter. “I’ve tested these materials in a backyard composter and it actually biodegraded. Not rapidly, but it was better than other biodegradable plastics that did nothing.”
Practice What You Preach
Creating this natural plastic replacement was difficult enough. Doing so while also remaining a carbon-negative company required almost as much ingenious engineering. The company spent serious time researching the most efficient ways to obtain methane and put it to the most effective use.
Newlight didn’t create more methane for its greenhouse ingredient—instead, it sourced biogas from dairy farms, food waste digesters, landfills, and abandoned coal mines.
Saving Oceans With…Blockchain?
The only way to understand the carbon impact of an item is to track it throughout its entire production process, and that can get complicated.
“We…also wanted to give consumers the ability to understand our process, its various steps and its carbon impact,” says Herrema. “We called up IBM three years ago and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to apply blockchain technology to our process and our products.’”
Blockchain is a digital ledger, a record of transactions. The system works by linking individual records, called blocks, in a single list, dubbed a chain. Those chain databases are connected in a network through peer-to-peer nodes. Blockchains are used for recording transactions made with cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, and other applications, such as with Newlight’s public, transparent product tracking.
Newlight and IBM set up a blockchain so that all the inputs and outputs of their system were registered. The blockchain data creates traceable, trackable numbers for everything the company does. When they have a finished product, they have recorded all the steps it went through.
“Using that individual unique blockchain number, customers can see all the major steps in the production process and the time and date associated with those,” says Herrema, “and then also the specific carbon impact associated with the product.”
Any customer can plug in a product number and find dynamic data associated with the item. “The blockchain is always running and each new product has its own number,” says Herrema. “Every single number is different, and every single number shows its own unique times and dates associated with the various steps in the process.”
“We work with a company that’s come in and basically set up a gas capture system that captures the methane emissions and purifies out the non-methane gases like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other things. Then they inject that into the natural gas grid,” says Herrema.
The company pays extra for the renewable power and renewable gas, and the gas is piped into Newlight’s factory. The company says it has a carbon reduction impact of 45,000 tons of CO2 a year, a claim that’s backed up by SCS Global and Carbon Trust, two independent third-party carbon accounting firms. And all steps in the manufacturing process, from packaging to transportation, are accounted for.
Some of the world’s biggest companies are going green. Apple has declared its intention to be carbon neutral by 2030 and has instituted six major initiatives toward that effort. Large companies like Disney, Starbucks, and Nike have also stated their deep commitment to environmental protection, though what that looks like remains to be seen.
Newlight’s carbon-negative game plan is only now coming into sharper focus. Herrema and Kimmel originally intended to make the AirCarbon material available directly, and they continue to explore that option. But first, they became its initial biggest customer by starting two brands, Restore and Covalent.
Restore makes reusable marine-biodegradable straws and utensils, and Covalent makes high-end sunglasses and handbags—a testament that PHB can be both utilitarian and fashion-forward.
“We want to see the end of the plastic fork that never goes away replaced with a natural material, AirCarbon, that nature understands,” Herrema says.
Even when a Covalent handbag or pair of sunglasses becomes unusable, it won’t languish in a landfill. Instead, Newlight encourages customers to return worn-out or damaged products, because the PHB material can be melted down and re-formed.
“The primary intended pathway is for products to be remelted and then re-formed into new products,” says Herrema, citing a Covalent handbag as an example. “We would probably turn it into an alternative leather-type product, but theoretically you have the ability to form it into lots of different parts and pieces.”
Newlight is expanding its own footprint (while shrinking the carbon one) by starting the design and preparation to build a second factory, Eagle 4, and the new products that’ll be built—or grown—within its walls.
And the expansion is warranted because AirCarbon is now ready for the masses. This spring, Newlight partnered with Shake Shack locations in New York, Miami Beach, and California to use Restore for customer orders. On a larger scale, Target stores nationwide will start carrying Restore foodware.
After nearly two decades of work, Herrema’s thoughts on the “plastic” fork have changed. “I did have an awkward moment when I think I fell in love with one of our straws, and then I fell in love with a fork as well,” Herrema says.
Hopefully, the world will have similar feelings.