The United Soybean Board teamed up with The Yield Lab Institute and AWS Startups to create the Soy Innovation Challenge, where entrepreneurs use new technology and U.S. Soy to solve sustainability challenges. The Soy Innovation Challenge provides mentorship, networking, training and soy checkoff funding to advance their U.S. Soy solutions. Check out the innovations from the four finalists in this article series.

Plastics can do almost anything, from durably encasing and protecting electronics in your cell phone to packaging your most recent home delivery order. Today’s world wouldn’t function without them.

“Plastics has a problem right now, and it’s sustainability,” says Scott Loethen, Ph.D., founder of Renewable Green Composites.

More than 99% of plastic is made from materials sourced from fossil fuels.1 Although successful efforts exist to incorporate renewable raw materials into plastics, the link between fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, and plastics production remains strong.

“That sustainability problem can be solved in part with soybeans,” Loethen continues. “This isn’t a new idea. Henry Ford had a chemist create plastics out of soybeans for his cars. It’s time to revisit that idea with modern techniques.”

That’s exactly what Loethen is doing, drawing on both his personal and professional experience to start a company committed to providing more sustainable plastics.

Molding Mindsets

Influence from Loethen’s parents and extended family laid the foundation for him to tackle this challenge. He grew up in an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

“Entrepreneurship was taught at the dinner table,” he remembers. “My dad started his own computer software company, and his dad started his own insurance agency.”

He learned the importance of listening to customers and understanding their needs, to serve them well.

“And, we spent nearly every weekend at my grandparents’ and uncle’s farm, about an hour away,” he says. “While my brother and I had fun with our cousins, I also saw the sheer volume of hard work that goes into farming.”

Over time and generations, the land was passed down so that today, Loethen is part owner of the family farm in southern Illinois. Though the fields are leased to full-time farmers, he stays connected to agriculture.

Plastics Professional

In college, Loethen fell in love with biology and also earned a chemistry degree for broader career opportunities. Over time, he learned how polymers can be used for many different purposes. For example, he developed polymers to encapsulate and deliver materials, like drugs for cancer treatments and herbicides for weed control.

“For the past 20 years, I’ve worked in polymers and plastics,” he says. “I’ve made over 100 products.”

As he listened to customers while working in a variety of roles, he consistently heard them start asking for sustainability.

“They don’t know what sustainability means in the context of their plastics, but they know it’s important,” Loethen explains. “I want to help them figure out answers and options.”

He divides plastics into two categories:

  • Durable plastics need to last a long time and handle heavy stress, like the plastic case on a cell phone.
  • Non-durable plastics should go away when their use is finished, like plastic packaging.

“Functionality defines what plastics need to do,” he says. “Some plastic needs to last forever, like the pipes in the walls of my house. But some plastic should be compostable. With my background and experience, I can listen and help plastics people define what sustainability means for their products.” Loethen notes that the plastics industry needs practical sustainability, and options need to have the same properties and price point as petroleum-based plastics. He kept that in mind as he explored petroleum alternatives.

Sustainable U.S. Soy Solutions

Loethen knows the value and potential of soybean oil to replace petroleum-based polymers in some applications. He also knows the history of soy and the Ford Motor Company.

Henry Ford’s research laboratory produced groundbreaking innovations at the time. He had a chemist create plastics out of soybeans for his cars. The possibilities for soy-based plastic have advanced with today’s technology.

As he dug into the potential of soy, he learned that soybean oil also serves as a major source for renewable fuels, including aviation fuel. In regions focused on shifting to biofuel options, including the U.S., demand for soybean oil is increasing, which brings with it growing capacity to crush soybeans and separate that oil from the rest of the material in the beans, commonly called soybean meal.

“Plastics requires a lot of raw material, and I learned that soybean meal will be more readily available,” Loethen explains. “I figured out how to denature the soybean meal and make it into plastic polymers. It doesn’t go into that form easily, but you can convince it.”

He has developed rigid plastic resins that contain up to 72% soybean meal. He has also created a flexible plastic film that contains a majority of soybean meal.

Soybean-based plastic pellets, shown at the bottom, can be used to make unfilled or fiber-reinforced plastic articles, like these other unformed materials.

“Soybean meal requires other ingredients and considerable processing to make plastics, and these compostable bioplastics will not fit every application,” Loethen says. “However, I have proof that the concept works and will hopefully fit many applications.”

His goal is for Renewable Green Composites to become a plastics supply house, making soy-based plastic beads and plastic additives that customers can melt and mold into a variety of more sustainable plastics. He sees potential for non-durable outdoor applications, like golf tees, Airsoft BBs, string weed trimmer line, lawn toys and more, as well as impact-resistant packaging and rigid flame-retardant uses.

The next step toward that goal is to submit his resins for third-party material property testing. The investment Renewable Green Composites receives as a Soy Innovation Challenge finalist will go toward that testing.

“Plastics are tested for countless properties, like impact strength, melting point, flowability, and more,” he explains. “The results determine its functionality and how it can be used. Based on my experience, I know what I think I have in my soy plastic resins, but this testing will prove what I have.”

He credits the Soy Innovation Challenge with providing him with the equivalent of an intense business short course.

“I am a scientist,” he says. “I’ve never taken a business class in my life. Participation in the Soy Innovation Challenge has been like a cattle prod, keeping me moving in the right direction. It’s helped me flesh out my ideas and make them into a business concept.”

He appreciates how Renewable Green Composites draws on his roots in entrepreneurship and agriculture to build on his plastics career.

“I believe soy will help solve sustainability problems for some uses of plastics,” Loethen says. “My soy plastics resin is brown, showing that it came from the earth and will go back to it.”

Scott Loethen of Renewable Green Composites explains how he uses soybean meal to make plastic with U.S. Soy farmers at an industry press conference in Houston, Texas.

Check out the other finalists in the 2023 Soy Innovation Challenge:

1 Fossil Fuels & Plastic, Center for International Environmental Law, accessed April 2024.