Biodegradable plastics developer retires at 90

90-year-old scientist Gerry Griffin pictured at his home at Tixover Grange. EMN-141028-202916009
90-year-old scientist Gerry Griffin pictured at his home at Tixover Grange. EMN-141028-202916009

A technologist who developed biodegradable plastic has finally handed back the keys to his production unit - at the age of 90.

Gerald Griffin retired decades ago but continued to work from business units at Pit Lane Business Park, in Ketton.

But on October 22, after almost a quarter of a century of manufacturing fragrant plastics, research into biodegradable plastic applications and consultancy work at his firm Epron Industries Ltd, he returned the keys to the unit to Rutland County Council.

Mr Griffin’s story begins with his National Service while he was awaiting his science degree from a London technical college.

He said: “During the interview I told them I was sitting my final exams. I had expected to go to a military barracks, but I found myself in the middle of Berkshire somewhere, in a specially created laboratory, with six others. We were given the task of producing a substitute for rubber latex.”

The team was asked to develop a material that could coat the decks of battleships to make them non-slippery.

On busy battleships where servicemen had to run across while fetching or carrying, the death toll had started to increase as sailors slipped on the steel decks and went overboard. And the Government was keen to reduce the casualties.

Mr Griffin said: “We were told the only material that was available was shredded rubber tyres.

“Our first task was to make an adhesive composition by modifying the tyres.

“It took us six months to get a workable material ready.

“We even had part of a deck delivered so we could spread different components to see what worked best.

“I went from training potentially for killing to training for saving lives.”

Mr Griffin was under the impression he was working for the Government, but when he discovered he was working for Dunlop he decided to move on and got a job as lecturer at Acton Tech, in London.

“While I was there I 
became interested in 
polymer technology - the physics and chemistry of plastics,” he said.

Three years later he moved to the newly set up Brunel University where he lectured and continued his research into biodegradable plastics, becoming its world patent holder.

There he was able to develop the material Byoplastic which was used to produce carrier bags that would disintegrate when buried in the ground.

It took him to America on several occasions to advise farmers on producing corn starch which is used in biodegradable plastic production. He was also invited to attend the American Chemical Society’s annual event in Chicago.

When he retired from Brunel University Mr Griffin moved to Tixover and set up Epron Industries at the Pit Lane industrial units where he manufactured the concentrate - a mixture of starch, plastic and a catalyst - that could be combined with plastic chips to make biodegradable plastic bags.

He sold his patents to the Americans who sold it to other countries making the formula available more widely.

Nevertheless, biodegradable plastic carriers have not become widespread despite the mechanism being available and concerns about climate change and the environment.

Mr Griffin, whose wife Sylvia died in 2011 and whose son William is a scientist at Cambridge University, said: “The scale of the packaging industry is huge.

“Polyethylene carrier bags are the cheapest to produce and can protect food and clothing for some time.

“While degradable material will not keep for more than a couple of months.

“Plastic bags are being made that are biodegradable, they are just not widely used.

“The reason why, is not clear. But the technology is there.”

l Rutland County Council plans to let the three 1,000 sq ft business units at Ketton, just off the A6121, near Stamford.

Each unit has forecourt access and three-phase electricity.

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