MicroGreen Polymers Grabs $1.6M to Put Green Plastics Into Your Morning Coffee Cup

Xconomy has learned that MicroGreen Polymers, an Arlington, WA-based developer of technology to recycle plastics into cheaper, environmentally friendly coffee cups among other things, has raised $1.6 million for expansion from WRF Capital and local angel investors (Northwest Energy Angels, Alliance of Angels, and Atlas Accelerator), out of an ongoing round the company expects will net $3 to $4 million later this month.

The money will be used to build up MicroGreen’s commercial manufacturing capacity, and boost its payroll from 9 people to as many as 30 over the next year, says CEO Tom Malone. The company is also scouting new locations, likely to be in Everett, WA, he says.

MicroGreen got started in 2002, when it spun out of the University of Washington. The basic idea from founders Greg Branch and Krishna Nadella, a pair of graduate students, was to see if they could develop a technique to squeeze high-pressure liquid carbon dioxide into plastics, to heat them up and expand them while in a solid state. This process creates billions of tiny microbubbles that allow manufacturers to maintain most of the properties of regular plastic, while using a lot less of the regular plastic that is made from oil. The MicroGreen technique also creates a handy insulating layer of air inside the plastic, which can protect your hand from getting burned while holding that hot morning coffee. But plastics are everywhere in the modern world, and MicroGreen Polymers sees plenty of opportunities to stick its recycled product into markets that are worth billions.

“We can use less plastic to do the same work,” Malone says. “It’s a less-is-more story.”

The technology, which MicroGreen calls “Ad-air” does just that—it adds air bubbles into recycled PET plastics (like the stuff from water and soda bottles), which makes the subsequent product lighter, uses less material, and makes it cheaper, Malone says. It retains many, but not all of the same properties as the original plastic, so it can’t be used for everything, he says.

The initial applications of the MicroGreen technology have been for a reflector plate that a Japanese manufacturer used to make liquid crystal display TVs appear brighter, and for a contract with Northrup Grumman to help make some electronics equipment lighter, Malone says. These aren’t huge clients, generating revenue of about $1 million last year, and almost $2 million this year, Malone says.

Bigger opportunities lie ahead in disposable coffee cups, food packaging such as microwave trays, and consumer food packaging like that used by Frito-Lay or Hormel, Malone says. The usual paper cup from Starbucks costs about a nickel but doesn’t insulate heat very well, requiring two cups or a paper sleeve. MicroGreen’s cup can stand up well enough to heat to last in a microwave, and it’s more environmentally friendly, because the plastic it uses can be recycled multiple times, Malone says. How big a deal might this be for our throw-away society? The market for disposable coffee cups is worth $6.5 billion a year, Malone says.

MicroGreen won’t be capturing all or most of that, of course. It licenses its technology to other companies that make containers, and takes a percentage royalty on sales, Malone says.

Researchers have tried for years to do something like MicroGreen, but Malone insists there are no competitors doing something just like it. The competition comes mainly from corn-derived plastics (polylactic acid, or PLA), which is more expensive, and has potential to divert land otherwise used for food production—which can be controversial if it is linked to rising food prices. Then there’s the traditional, ultra-cheap mode of polystyrene foams (widely known as Styrofoam), which use chemical blowing agents to make plastic less dense and more insulating.

So food packaging comes first, but then MicroGreen has its sights set on moving into providing renewable, lightweight plastics for automotive manufacturers, aerospace, and building materials, Malone says. But there are limits to what its technology can do in those demanding arenas. One airplane manufacturer, for example, wanted to get lighter tray tables, but MicroGreen declined because it didn’t think its plastic was tough enough. “Tray tables get banged up, sat on, leaned on—it’s a very demanding application,” Malone says. “Now if we’re talking about an overhead bin or ceiling liner, that’s great, we can do that.”

Before getting off the phone, I couldn’t resist asking about our local coffee-making icon. Has Starbucks shown any interest in this renewable plastic coffee cup? Back in May, when Starbucks hosted a Cup Summit (chronicled here by GreenBiz.com) in which it invited 30 different cup, cupstock, and coating manufacturers to Seattle to talk about sustainability ideas, it didn’t respond to MicroGreen’s request to join the talks.

Apparently, MicroGreen didn’t know the event was happening until a couple days beforehand, but Malone sounded like he’s undeterred by the snub. Starbucks, after all, trumps up its sustainability on its paper cups, and is talking about making them all recyclable by 2012.

“We tried to talk to them, but they seem pretty well entrenched with their technology,” Malone says. “We couldn’t get their attention. But we’ll have our day in the sun.”

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