"The world knows about what's happening here, but Georgia doesn't." That's how Rick McCaskill, Executive Director of the Bainbridge-Decatur County Development Authority, describes Danimer Scientific - a biopolymer manufacturer headquartered in Bainbridge, Georgia. The company was started in hopes that their team could have a positive impact on the growing pollution crisis that plagues the planet. The founders were confident they could find new ways to make plastic items that came from the natural world- and would disappear back into it. And that's exactly what they're doing. Their products biodegrade in a fraction of the time it takes traditional plastic and leave virtually no carbon footprint.
"There are really two parts of our company," explains Phil Van Trump, CTO of Danimer Scientific. "The chemistry side and the biology side. On the biology side, we develop and make a type of plastic called PHA through a fermentation process." Yes, just like making wine or beer, but in this case, the finished product is a biodegradable, compostable biopolymer. Their technological breakthroughs have earned Danimer Scientific more than 120 patents in nearly 20 countries. The materials they provide are used by manufacturers to replace petroleum-based plastics in the products they make. Those products- anything from cups to cutlery to packaging- are able to break down and become a part of the natural environment. "Nature came up with this process," Phil explains, "we're just making it accessible."
So, how is all of this possible? Phil simplifies the process for a quick overview. "We start with canola seeds. The canola is crushed into oil and fed to microorganisms, which we use to produce the PHA. It's pretty cool, the microorganisms use it as a food storage mechanism. So, just like we eat too much and put on weight around the middle, the bacteria use this as an energy storage mechanism. The PHA is unique, and it's enzymatically degraded. They put these enzymes in laundry detergent, and that's how grass stains or ketchup stains go away. In nature, there are loads of microorganisms and fungi that can enzymatically degrade PHA, and that's how its truly biodegradable. It breaks down the same way salt or wood does. That then becomes a light powder. In the plastics world, everyone uses pellets, so we turn it into pellets. Customers melt the pellets down and turn them into the finished products, things like forks, knives, spoons, straws, coatings for paper cups, sheet resin, things like that."
That's not all they're doing. A large part of their business is working with other biopolymers to make them work for a variety of customers who need added functionality. "There are specialty companies in the biopolymer world, and we are one of those. We can take commercially available polymers and formulate them to make them better. This is common in adhesives or performance polymer for automotive or aerospace industries. We also do that for biopolymers, and that's our chemistry side of our business," adds Phil.
The 110 or so employees at Danimer are split into several groups- sales and marketing, account management, operations, manufacturing, R&D technicians and scientists. They have about 20 PhDs on staff working on both the biology and the chemistry side. Phil himself was on a path to medical school, but switched course to microbiology because he enjoyed research. "There are a lot of people who are passionate about doing this kind of work. Some staff we recruit from outside the area, but a lot of people who work here were already local. It's a great place to work, on every level," Phil explains.
With the global demand for new and innovative sustainability practices, it's an exciting time at Danimer Scientific. Many consumers are willing to pay a little more for a biodegradable product, putting these kinds of scientific breakthroughs in high demand from manufacturers and their customers. These critical environmental breakthroughs are coming directly from rural, close-knit Bainbridge, Georgia- proving that innovation knows no region, and change comes from passionate, bright people everywhere.