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Corn-Based Plastic Bottles Threaten Recycling Efforts
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2007

Bottles that could be composted would disrupt the cycle that reclaims bottles for recycling and reuse.

The economics of making ethanol and plastics from plants have improved as the price of oil and gas, against which they compete, has increased. There is no disputing that a shift to a carbohydrate economy can help to move us away from our dependence on non-sustainable petroleum.

But that transition should be done in such a way that does not disrupt or destroy existing recycling infrastructures.

Polylactic acid (PLA), the first commercial bio-based plastic produced from corn, made its debut in 2002, and was initially used for carryout food packaging and service ware. This is a good use for bio-based plastics, as there is no existing recycling system in place for these items, and it will be a better use when cellulosic feedstocks are used instead of corn. However, PLA is now also being pushed by its manufacturer, NatureWorks, for bottles. The company has focused on PLA’s unique capacity to be composted, since there is no existing recycling infrastructure to handle its end of life.

In practice, however, even though that is theoretically possible, PLA bottles will not be composted because of the scarcity of commercial facilities capable of doing so and the high cost of reaching those sites, which will charge instead of pay to accept them. And, composting does not recover the energy that went into producing the bottle, as recycling does.

Not only is there no market on the horizon to recycle bottles made of PLA, but PLA’s growing presence in bottle markets could significantly undermine existing recycling programs’ economics—first, by disrupting successful PET recovery programs, and, next, by losing the high value in the PET bottles it displaces.

A coalition of recycling organizations, including the Grassroots Recycling Network, the Plastic Redesign Project, the Container Recycling Institute, the Institute for Local Self Reliance and all of the local non-profit recycling programs, is asking NatureWorks to place a temporary moratorium on PLA bottles until end-of-life systems are developed to recycle or compost them economically. Others are asked to join their petition.

If you would like to learn more about these issues, visit the website http://plasticredesignproject.org/PLAHome.htm. To sign a petition to NatureWorks for a moratorium, go directly to www.plasticredesignproject.org/Petition.htm.

For more information about the new Sierra Club Zero Waste Committee go to http://clubhouse.sierraclub.org/committees/zerowaste. To join the team working on zero waste and extended producer responsibility initiatives join our discussion group by signing up at the “Members-Only list subscription page”: http://www.sierraclub.org/memberlists?listname=CONS-EQST-WASTE-FORUM.  

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