February 25, 2012
Plant-based plastics are taking root in Groton
Entrepreneur planning $1.3M factory to make cups, dishes
GROTON — Jeff Toolan wants to change the way people produce and use consumer plastics.The Groton native is building a facility that will produce plant-based plastics that can withstand high temperatures and can be reused to create new products.
“It looks, feels and performs just like traditional plastic,” Toolan said.He named the company Pylantis.The $1.25 million project will build plastic products from a polymerized corn resin, called RePek.
Plant-based plastics, made from polylactic acid, are mostly made from corn. Packaging companies have used the technology for years. Companies like Newman’s Own and Wal-Mart sell some of their products in packaging made from the resin.
For years, however, the main drawback of corn resin is that it melts in temperatures over 115 degrees.
The aspect that sets Toolan’s products apart is that his product will be dishwasher and microwave safe, heat-resistant up to 220 degrees, as well as biodegradable.
Toolan graduated from UCLA in 2003 with a degree in international relations. Since then he has founded several businesses, each with a focus on being environmentally friendly.
Pylantis had its start in Toolan’s search for a way to get rid of plastic tags on T-shirts for his first company, Multeepurpose Clothing Co.
“They’re expensive and not useful,” he said. “A friend of mine recommended looking into bioplastic stickers.”
Toolan went on to help start Repurpose Compostables, a company that makes plant-based coffee cups.
After leaving Repurpose, he spent several months researching plant-based plastics.He stumbled across a Japanese engineer who claimed he had a method that produced natural and strong bioplastics that could be used in microwaves and dishwashers.
Luckily for Toolan, he had connections in Japan. He spent a year there after high school on a Rotary Scholarship, which helped him tremendously, he said.
“That year had a significant impact on me,” he said. “This project wouldn’t have happened without it.”The engineer taught at the Fukushima National College of Technology in Fukushima, Japan. The two were working on a deal when the March 2011 tsunami hit Fukushima, destroying the town and putting plans on hold for a bit. After things settled down, an agreement was signed in late 2011. Other companies are trying to develop bioplastics but Toolan’s facility will be the only one of its kind in North America, thanks to a patent on the process.
Pylantis will take the plant-based plastics and mold it in to consumer goods such as cups or dishes.
Depending on material that it adds to products, such as clay or wood, the appearance and feel of the products will change as well, Toolan said.
“One of the big new fads is wooden sunglasses and they cost hundreds of dollars,” he said. “We could possibly build frames for sunglasses for so much cheaper.”Pylantis’ products are not for one-time use or meant to be immediately recycled, instead they should last for years before being recycled, Toolan said.“We’re still doing testing but our products should have a life cycle that meets or exceeds the life cycle of traditional plastics,” he said.
To help finance the project, Toolan received a $300,000 grant from the state’s regional economic council competition. The rest of the money will come from private investors. Construction on the project will start in midsummer.
By late fall, Toolan expects the plant to be up and running, distributing environmentally friendly plastics across the Northeast.
There is no site set for the plant because Toolan realized the original site he chose would not be big enough if he wanted to expand the facility.
“We have three site we’re looking at right now, all in the village of Groton,” he said. “There’s still some contracts and stuff to work out so we don’t know the exact site yet.”
The first phase of the project will use four machines and employ around 25 people. The second phase, which will not happen for some time, will be a recycling facility that collects older products made by Pylantis and breaks them down to for reuse.
Toolan decide to build his factory in Groton not only because it was his hometown but because it offered a relatively cheap and clean source of electricity that went along with his environmentally friendly model.
“Having a hydro-powered municipal electrical system was a big part of it,” he said. “We hope to eventually become a carbon-neutral factory.”
Groton Village Clerk Charles Rankin said the 25 jobs the project is expected to create would be a boost for the village.
“This is a nice little business,” he said. “If it takes off, hopefully there will be more down the road.”
There is no confirmed site for the project yet but once it is settled, Pylantis will still go through the usual planning and site review process, Rankin said.
There is already some demand for Pylantis products locally. Kristopher Buchan and Ed Brewer Jr., owners of Groton Hobby Shop, hope that Pylantis will be able to produce parts for doll houses and accessories they sell.
“We’re hoping it works out,” Buchan said. “A lot of our products are made in China and there’s obviously a backlash against those products right now.”
Pylantis’ process would also give the smaller accessories a look and feel that current production methods do not.
“The type of modeling they’re using, there’s nothing like that out there,” Buchan said. “It looks like it’s really made of wood.”
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