ORONO, Maine - The usual choices for potatoes include baked, mashed or French fried, but a new study suggests another option: plastic.
A report by the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center says the state's potato industry could benefit by becoming a producer of bioplastics, which are made from plant starch rather than crude oil and petroleum products.
Bioplastics can be used to produce carpeting, upholstery fabric and recyclable plastic bottles, the report said. Countries including the United Kingdom and Japan have turned to potato-based plastics technology to turn out such items as "spudware," or plastic silverware made from potatoes.
Researchers, environmentalists and industry representatives agreed Tuesday that turning potatoes into plastics makes technological and economic sense for manufacturers and Maine potato growers.
"I think this is a first step for agriculture to look at new avenues and develop new markets," said Don Flannery, executive director of the Maine Potato Board. He said there is plenty of additional acreage that could be planted for bioplastics without reducing the current food crop.
Aroostook County would be the likely location of a bioplastics plant that would put the state at the cutting edge of the biobased products market, speakers said. Guilford-based InterfaceFABRIC, which has pioneered the manufacture of textiles from recycling plastics and corn, has indicated it may be interested in building such a plant.
Interface, which makes carpeting and upholstery fabrics, received a grant last year from the Maine Technology Institute to evaluate the possible use of Maine potatoes in place of corn. That grant helped fund the UMaine study.
Wendy Porter, Interface's director of environmental management, estimated the cost of a bioplastics plant at $50 million and said the next step is to work out technical details of the operation and identify a location.
Other companies that have expressed interest in using potato-based plastics include Toms of Maine, Correct Building Products and Sagoma Technologies, a Biddeford firm that makes compact disc cases from corn-based plastics.
Because biobased plastics are made from starch, they are toxic-free, recyclable and often biodegradable in industrial composting facilities.
The economic and environmental advantages of potato-based plastics were cited by Michael Belliveau, executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center, a nonprofit group that promotes clean industries.
"We are here today because we imagine a future when plastics are made from sustainably grown Maine potatoes instead of toxic petrochemicals," Belliveau said. "This represents green chemistry in action."