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I've Got One Word For You Minnesota, Plastics!

When we discuss dwindling supplies of oil we often focus on gasoline and transportation, but overlook the role of oil in plastics. Oil is a key ingredient in the manufacture of plastic, so it would seem that the fate of plastic is tied to the fate of oil.

Plastic, the material that is as essential to modern life as electricity, faces a bleak future due to the impending shriveling of Earth's oil supply. As Karen Youso recently discovered for her article "Six days without plastic? Good luck", we really can't sustain modern life without plastic. This begs the question, what are we going to do? Fortunately, recent scientific advancements have shown that we can continue to manufacture plastic by replacing oil with biobased sources.

Research has already gone into planning for an age without oil. While a future in which we do nothing leads to gloom, it turns out that acting to prevent this future yields great benefits, especially economically. A 2008 report from the United States Department of Agriculture predicts that the global market for biobased polymers, such as plastics, could be as large as $150 billion dollars, nearly as large as the current American consumer electronics market. Obviously, an investment in this young industry could yield significant benefits.

Fortunately, Minnesota has the potential to be a leader in biobased polymers. Much like Texas during the oil boom, or today's Silicon Valley, tomorrow's Minnesota could be the epicenter of an exciting and profitable industry and could reap the rewards of economic prosperity. Minnesota has a head start on this industry thanks to Twin Cities based NatureWorks and the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Polymers. However, considerable work remains not only in the science and technology of biobased materials, but also in its policy. The state must work to encourage this young industry; to nurse it though its formative years so that it can grow and thrive. To do otherwise is to pass on a perfect opportunity to strengthen Minnesota's economy. And who wants to do that?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs
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