AgroRenew LLC, a bioplastics startup based in Knox County, Tennessee has announced plans to build an $83 million plant and create about 250 jobs. The 200,000-square-foot facility will be used to convert food waste from watermelon, cantaloupe, and pumpkin farms in the county into biodegradable and sustainable plastics. The company’s founder Brian Southern said the idea emerged from his conversations with local farmers about what to do with excess harvest that doesn’t get bought or ace quality control, and it was discovered that some chemical elements within watermelon could be used to create biodegradable plastic resin.
AgroRenew aims to establish a fully circular economy-type model by working with farmers’ cover crops during the winter months, which meets the company’s chemical property requirements for making bioplastics. The company expects to break ground on the plant in early 2024, with two phases expected to establish a 102,000-square-foot facility capable of taking about 100 million pounds of food waste and producing around 150,000 tons of bioplastic annually. Once the initial facility is running optimally, the company plans to add 92,000 square feet of additional manufacturing space.
The project will be funded with a combination of AgroRenew’s own investment, private equity investment, and customer partners. The company is also partnering with Vincennes University to develop a skilled trade certification program to train every employee and has plans to establish a Bioplastics Innovation Center for research. Southern said the company would look to build multiple facilities in other parts of the country, such as Georgia, Florida, and Texas, where they can find the biomaterial needed to make the bioplastic products.
The project’s establishment is projected to generate numerous benefits, including the creation of new job opportunities, economic growth, and reduced environmental impact. The major challenge for AgroRenew will be finding the talent to operate the facility, although it aims to mitigate this by partnering with a local university to develop a skills program.