To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of Maine manufacturing have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, several Maine mills have closed and pulp and paper production statewide has declined. But the global market for advanced biobased products is skyrocketing. Maine is in an excellent position to grab market share, putting our people and natural resources to work.
“Biobased” means making everyday products, fuels and chemicals out of renewable resources from forest, farm and sea instead of petroleum. The demand for biobased products is high because people increasingly want safer, sustainable products. Companies want to replace petroleum with biobased alternatives because of the price volatility of petroleum and its effects on the climate.
Biobased manufacturing facilities are being built around the world every day. Technology to convert wood chips to sugars has already been successfully developed in Maine. These building block sugars, which were tested and found to be high quality by more than 20 companies, can be converted into high-value products, such as bioplastics, biofuels and biobased chemicals.
Examples of biobased successes are popping up around Maine. True Textiles in Guilford created and dyed fabric made entirely from polylactic acid, a bioplastic made from corn. In South Portland, Grow-Tech manufactures horticultural growth media made with polylactic acid. In Boothbay, Biovation makes biobased boot dryer tactical sheet products for the military, and other products for the health care, commercial and industrial markets.
The University of Maine and its Forest Bioproducts Research Institute actively churn out new biobased technologies. The university has one of the world’s first pilot plants to make nanocellulose — an extremely strong, lightweight material made from very small particles of wood.
Biobased manufacturing is gaining critical mass in Maine. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins recently ensured $3.5 million could be available for forest products research to improve innovation and maintain a sustainable and globally competitive domestic forest products industry. U.S. Sen. Angus King has long been a proponent of advanced manufacturing and renewable technologies. Eastern Maine Development Corporation is responding to economic distress in the Penobscot Valley region and has recently identified biobased manufacturing as an emergent opportunity for Maine’s forest products industry.
Maine’s assets are extremely attractive to biobased investors — abundant biomass from forest, farm and sea, as well as an industrial infrastructure and a strong workforce. Also, our proud history of entrepreneurship and manufacturing means Maine can nurture and grow a new manufacturing area — especially one anchored in sustainably harvested wood and other renewable materials unique to Maine.
So how does Maine turn this potential into real jobs? Other states, such as Minnesota, Iowa and Louisiana, are actively pursuing biobased manufacturing projects. How can we do this in Maine?
First, we need a fresh inventory of Maine’s assets to provide investors with the information they need. We’ve got biomass — trees, agricultural waste, algae — but how much is available and at what cost? Where is it located? How much to transport it? Biomass cost curves and other data, including transportation, workforce and industrial infrastructure, should be packaged into a road map to attract biobased investors to Maine.
Second, we need to market Maine’s biobased assets globally. Large companies and brands are investing in biobased joint ventures and new technologies. According to a recent USDA report, “Why Biobased: Opportunities in the Emerging Bioeconomy,” the growth in bioplastics alone is projected to be 20 percent to 30 percent per year, which may not be enough to meet demand. So, let’s market Maine’s biobased companies and our state’s assets with a strategic global marketing effort.
Third, we need to help grow Maine biobased companies and help other companies pursue biobased with research and development assistance to test and commercialize new products. We have an emerging biobased manufacturing sector in Maine that could turn into a substantial force for economic development if the right foundation is laid.
Yes, there are communities in Maine still reeling from recent plant closures, and no, biobased is not an overnight solution. Yet, biobased manufacturing is a unique economic development strategy for Maine. It can create good manufacturing jobs, use natural resources sustainably, respond to global demand and reduce our reliance on petroleum.
Charlotte Mace directs the Sustainable Economy Program at Environmental Health Strategy Center, a nonprofit organization with offices in Portland and Bangor.