Bioplastic fantastic

Plastic doesn't have to be made from oil, so one Hamilton company is making it out of blood and feathers. Aduro Biopolymers researches and develops sustainable alternatives to the oil-based plastics we use every day.

The company's flagship product, Novatein, is made from dried cow's blood. It also has the rights to produce a plastic composite made from poultry feathers.

There are plenty of plant-based bioplastics already on the market. The problem with these is they can be double the price of traditional plastics. They are a fashionable product for companies trying to appear environmentally friendly, but often don't offer any financial value.

Newly appointed chief executive Darren Harpur says the biggest challenge is convincing companies it's worthwhile to use bioplastics instead of polyethylene, polypropylene and other common plastics.

"You sort of become a fringe provider to a small segment of the market unless you can compete on price, or if you can offer something different that they can't get elsewhere."

He says Novatein will be a competitive price, as will the "feather plastic", because the raw materials are by-products that have already been through the expensive, energy-intensive industrial processes.

But, as Harpur points out, bioplastics aren't suitable for everything.

The bioplastic is made from bloodmeal, the powdered dried blood often used in fertilisers. The bloodmeal is mixed with the sort of chemicals you might find in toothpaste and food preservatives to make granules of resin. Those granules can be heated and formed into any number of objects in a mould, just like polyethylene.

The difference is that Novatein is non-toxic and biodegradable. Based on tests, half of its mass can degrade in 12 weeks. Simply putting it in a cup of water will cause it to start slowly degrading.

This makes it unsuitable for long-term use, but perfect for use at places like Wallace Corporation's meat rendering plant. Wallace Corporation is an investor in Aduro and will potentially be both a supplier of bloodmeal and a consumer of bioplastics made by Aduro.

When an animal is slaughtered, plastic clips are used to stop contaminants from inside the body escaping into the meat.

The plastic gets ground with the offal and becomes a minor contaminant in final products like tallow and pet food.

Novatein clips wouldn't contaminate the offal, since they are made of bloodmeal and will easily degrade in the rendering process.

Aduro isn't in the game of selling finished products to consumers.

"Our job is to make the granules," says Harpur. It is up to manufacturers to then create products with them.

But another challenge comes with that: because bioplastics are essentially a new material, manufacturers won't use them unless they know the end product will have a market.

So Aduro has to find genuine uses for its bioplastics and get the end users interested before manufacturers will start buying the resins.

The company was started in 2008, and plans to begin manufacturing resins between mid 2015 and mid 2016.

It began with funding from WaikatoLink, the commercialisation company of the University of Waikato. Now Wallace Corporation is funding it through to the production phase.

The company employs two full-time scientists and R&D manager Dr Johan Verbeek, the co-inventor of Novatein. It also employs 10 university students.