Plant-based polymers pollute recycled plastic stream - group

27 July 2009 18:03  [Source: ICIS news]

Plant based plastics under fireHOUSTON (ICIS news)--Plant-based polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA) contaminate recycled product streams and add to the cost of recycling and processing plastic, the US trade association National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) said on Monday.

Despite PLA’s much-touted ecological advantages, NAPCOR said the material cannot successfully be mixed into the existing polyethylene terephthalate (PET) recycling stream without raising costs, decreasing yields and damaging the quality of recycled PET.

While both products can be made from organic feedstocks, plant-based PLA is a different material and is more difficult to recycle than plant-based PET.

NAPCOR chairman Tom Busard said he does not doubt that PLA can be recycled, but that PET recyclers have to shoulder logistical burdens and higher system costs to do it.

Well-intended “green” initiatives like the creation of plant-based polymers do not take into account end-of-life factors that overshadow the new technology’s real impact and sustainability, said NAPCOR executive director Dennis Sabourin.

PLA and PET containers are not distinguishable by sight, meaning new and better auto-sorting technology is necessary, he added.

While this leaves open the opportunity for innovation, the trade association said recent tests by US producer Primo Waters using NatureWorks PLA bottles showed that existing near-infrared sorting systems effectively sorted only 93% of the PLA from the PET recycling stream.

NatureWorks did not immediately return a request for comment.

With a typical system cost of $200,000 or more, NAPCOR said the recycling equipment remains prohibitively expensive and yet inadequate for an industry where recyclers require the sorting equipment to separate bales of mixed polymers at 95% or better.

“The volumes of PLA that can be separated out at this time are relatively low and do not make up the critical mass required for a viable reclamation business model,” Sabourin said.

He said that because there is no practical way to aggregate or market the sorted material, PLA often ends up in a landfill, in addition to increasing yield losses related to the cost of sorting.

“NAPCOR has no wish to impede the recycling of additional resins including PLA, but we can’t sanction putting successful programmes in jeopardy through the premature inclusion of other resins into the PET system,” said Sabourin, who added that brand owners should carefully consider the impacts prior to making packaging decisions.

NAPCOR was founded in 1987 as the trade association for the PET plastic industry in the United States and Canada, advocating solutions to PET recycling.

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By: Landon Feller
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