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Bottled-up tension: bio-based plastics could potentially reduce petroleum consumption, but recyclers fear the effects such bottles could have on the PET recycling infrastructure.

Innovation is seldom without controversy, and the recycling industry has definitely seen its share of both in recent years, from single-stream recycling to polylactide acid (PLA) plastic, a new bio-based polymer made from corn dextrose, supplied by NatureWorks LLC, Minneapolis.

An independently managed business unit of Cargill Inc., NatureWorks began producing PLA plastic in 2002, with commercial production beginning in 2004, according to Mary Rosenthal, NatureWorks global communications leader.

Today, PLA bottles, which are suitable for non-carbonated beverages, are being used by brands such as Biota Water, Naturally Iowa Dairy and Noble Juice. PLA is also being used in gift cards at Target and Wal-Mart, in produce packaging at Wild Oats and Wal-Mart and in carryout containers, serviceware and salad bar containers at New York specialty retailers Citarella, Market Basket and Turcos.

According to NatureWorks, PLA enjoys a number of disposal options in addition to landfill, including mechanical or chemical recycling, composting and incineration.

However, a coalition of recyclers comprised of the Plastic Redesign Project, the Container Recycling Institute, Eco-Cycle, the Ecology Center, Eureka Recycling, the Grassroots Recycling Network and the Institute for Local Self Reliance has asked NatureWorks to refrain from expanding the use of PLA in bottles until the company can demonstrate its recyclablity. The potential detrimental effects large volumes of PLA bottles could have on the PET recycling infrastructure also have the coalition concerned.

AT ISSUE. "PLA used in bottles would displace bottles made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), and there is a thriving recycling system for PET that could be disrupted," Susan Hubbard, CEO of the nonprofit Eureka Recycling, Minneapolis, says. "After years of hard work to make it so, PET recycling is now a successful part of our recycling efforts, paying between 10 cents and 20 cents per pound from the markets. Nationally, this translates into about $120 million in revenues received by the 9,000 recycling programs." She adds, "These revenues play a critical role in the economics of recycling for these communities and for our communities here in Minnesota."

Eureka Recycling and the other organizations asking for a moratorium on PLA bottles don't take issue with using the material in serviceware, however, because there is not a current recycling infrastructure that would be disrupted as a result. "In fact," Hubbard says, "Eureka Recycling is a zero waste events provider and as such we work with vendors and caterers to encourage them to use compostable servicewear. This ensures that we can collect the food scraps from events for composting without concern for plastic contamination from the serviceware."

The Plastic Redesign Project is a coalition of state and local government agencies and associations dedicated to improving the economics of local plastics recycling programs through voluntary public-private partnerships. According to the group's Web site (www. htm), despite the fact that PLA bottles are made from a sustainable crop like corn, they are actually less sustainable than PET bottles in light of the loss of PET recycling revenue that could result and the obstacles to economically recycling PLA.

The organization also says that while the material is "theoretically compostable, that is not likely to be done. Recycling is higher on the Integrated Waste Management Hierarchy because it recovers the energy and other inputs that went into making the original package. While composting, were it feasible in this case, is a good thing, that would only be the preferred option after every effort has first been made to reduce, reuse and recycle."

While Hubbard says that a shift from petroleum is "critically important," doing so at the expense of recycling programs doesn't benefit the environment. "NatureWorks and other PLA producers and brand owners interested in this material should be working to transition into bio-based bottles without impairing the economics of today's recycling programs. To act responsibly, NatureWorks, and other manufacturers of bio-based resins, should not have introduced their resins into the bottle market until after these problems have been resolved," Hubbard adds.

POINT, COUNTERPOINT. Some companies that have introduced packaging made from bio-based plastics are attempting to make it easier to differentiate bottles made using bio-based resins from PET bottles. Cereplast, Hawthorne, Calif., uses extrusion blow molding to produce its bottles, which are not commercially available as of yet. Cereplast President and CEO Frederic Scheer says of the bottles, "If they were to be made available commercially, they would not be clear. As a result, customers and recycling facilities will be able to clearly identify them as alternative plastics.

NatureWorks is working on answering the questions regarding the disposal of post-consumer PLA bottles, which, according to Brian Glassbrenner, NatureWorks bottle business development manager, makes up a trivial percentage of the bottle market relative to PET. Slightly more than 5 billion pounds of PET bottles were produced in the U.S. in 2005.

Glasbrenner says the bottles can be hydrolyzed back into lactic acid, which is the foundation of PLA. "The acid is what we would like to have a supply of," he says.

Some recyclers still do not welcome the commercial production of PLA bottles, and even Glasbrenner says the potential effect of PLA on PET recycling is not an easy question to answer. "The data we have published and put out in public says that if the amount of PLA in PET is greater than 0.1 percent, you can see an effect on haze," Glasbrenner says. However, since most bottles only contain 10 percent post-consumer content, he adds, the affect would be minimal. "We have vetted that through brand owners and recycling groups. They have all said that at or below that 0.1 percent, it shouldn't be a problem."

The Plastic Redesign Project is not convinced. "Even if investment is made in new optical sorting equipment, at the 97.5 percent accuracy rate that NatureWorks reports infrared sorters can achieve in careful trials, just 4 percent of the clear plastic bottles made from PLA would leave the PET bale too contaminated for bottle markets," the group contends.

With many corporations speaking the language of sustainability, bio-based resins stand to gain ground in the years to come.

GOOD INTENTIONS. Hubbard is conflicted about the introduction of bio-based plastics in the bottle market. "It is pretty tricky because as environmentalists we don't want to push brand owners away from this transition to bio-based plastics, but we have to be honest about the fact that it just cannot be recycled yet and won't be without some change of course."

Glasbrenner says PLA offers a variety of end-of-life options, including composting, mechanical recycling and hydrolyzing. "We want to make sure it stays out of landfills," he adds.

Rosenthal of NatureWorks says PLA is a performance-based polymer that is trying to be socially responsible through its smaller environmental footprint. "As we take this new-to-the-world material to the marketplace ... it's a journey, and we don't have all of the answers in place."


NatureWorks LLC released detailed bale specifications for its bottle buyback program during the National Recycling Coalition Congress in late October of 2006

According to NatureWorks the buyback program was started to create market-driven demand for post-consumer PLA bottles and to encourage their separation at material recovery facilities The protocol for the acceptable bale type and condition is based on industry specifications and guidelines

NatureWorks is also making bale specifications available online at www

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at
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Author:Toto, Deanne
Publication:Recycling Today
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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