MicroGreen Polymers, Inc., is doing something amazing, and Koran Andrews, a tribal member and CEO of the Stillaguamish Tribal Enterprise Corp. (STECO), was quick to see the company's potential as an opportunity to diversify the tribe's economic development efforts.
Why did the tribe choose this company for its first non-tribal business investment, to the tune of $5 million? Andrews says, "They are located in the same small rural town, Alexandria, Wash., as we are, so we saw it as an opportunity to support our local community. And MicroGreen is a very, very green business; its vision falls in line with our values of protecting Mother Earth. You could say we're putting our money where our mouth is while diversifying the tribe's economic development."
It's a move other tribes should consider, say Andrews and Chris Jacobs, VP of marketing and product development for MicroGreen. If other tribes invest the remaining $15 million to $25 million the company seeks in this financing round, MicroGreen could be 51 percent majority-owned by American Indian tribes.
Jacobs explains that the company—to put it simply—makes food packaging items from recycled PET, the plastic utilized to make water bottles, using a technology dubbed Ad-air®.
"The process is to push gas into a plastic sheet at the molecular level," explains Jacobs. "An analogy would be the gas in a bottle of soda. You buy a bottle and there is lots of carbon dioxide in solution that the cap is holding there. Undo the cap and the CO2 forms bubbles."
Using the Ad-air® technology, "gas is driven into the plastic and the plastic acts like the soda bottle cap. Warming up the plastic has the same effect as removing the cap—the bubbles expand and create sheets of material that are up to 80 percent air with solid plastic on the surface and a honeycomb interior," says Jacobs.
The technology was developed at the University of Washington, which holds the original patent. "MicroGreen Polymers has the worldwide exclusive rights to produce the material. Between us and the university, 80-90 patents or disclosures have been granted or are in the works, covering such things as the science behind the process, the production process and final applications of the material. The take-away here is that the technology is well-protected," Jacobs says.
MicroGreen chose plastic cups as its first entry into the marketplace because food packaging is a $50 billion a year industry. "It's where we could have the greatest impact and potential to develop the greatest demand quickly," says Jacobs. InCycle™ cups can replace polystyrene (Styrofoam) cups, which are not widely recycled, take up a lot of space in landfills and do not decompose. Because of the expansion process, InCycle™ products use surprisingly little material. One 20-ounce plastic water bottle can be turned into seven 12-ounce coffee cups. Other applications could include car and airplane components and building construction materials.
So what's the downside of this manufacturing process? Jacobs says there is none. "We have waterless production facilities, recycle our scrap and our process is 93 percent more energy efficient than using virgin plastic." For now, the manufacturing facilities and head office of MicroGreen are in Alexandria, but secondary locations are a definitely a possibility.
"The biggest point is that there's a heck of an opportunity here, but it's not one-dimensional. MicroGreen is a company that's doing the right thing, solving problems—turning waste into feedstock. Our vision aligns with the values of Native American tribes I have spoken with. We see a large future potential here to do good and to make money at the same time," says Jacobs.