NPR

Replacing Plastic: Can Bacteria Help Us Break The Habit?

Entrepreneurs are eager to find substitutes for plastic that naturally degrade. One option is a "natural" plastic made by microbes and then eaten by them. But the process is still in early days.
Anne Schauer-Gimenez (left) Allison Pieja (center) and Molly Morse of Mango Materials stand next to the biopolymer fermenter at a sewage treatment plant by the San Francisco Bay. The fermenter feeds bacteria the methane they need to produce a biological form of plastic. Source: Chris Joyce/NPR

If civilizations are remembered for what they leave behind, our time might be labeled the Plastic Age. Plastic can endure for centuries. It's everywhere, even in our clothes, from polyester leisure suits to fleece jackets.

A Silicon Valley startup is trying to get the plastic out of clothing and put something else in: biopolymers.

A polymer is a long-chain molecule made of lots of identical units. Polymers are durable and often elastic. Plastic is a polymer made from petroleum products. But biopolymers occur often in nature — cellulose in wood or silk from silkworms — and unlike plastic, they can be broken down into natural materials.

Molly Morse manufactures biopolymers that she hopes will replace some kinds of plastic. She

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