Additives and the Farce of Bio-Degradability

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I have argued over and over again that recycling is money. Furthermore it is well-known that I strongly object to any microbial additives used in plastic packaging to claim bio-degradability. Additives used in PET, which has a working and profitable recycling business, would ruin the sector. Or as one PET recycler stated: “Even in small percentages, like one-tenth of one per cent, these are just catastrophic for us. They melt at different temperatures. They ruin our product”.

Don’t forget, recycling as an end-of-life option fares much better in the U.S. than bio-degradation. As long as there is a viable market for recycled material, it should be recycled and re-used, not wasted away. Additives claim to make a plastic bio-degradable or compostable, but that’s not true. Additives are simply breaking the plastic into smaller and smaller pieces so it can’t be seen. The plastic is still there. And by the way they are not adding nutrients to the soil, the way natural materials do. It only breaks down without any profitable goal, except that companies can use the ‘green-washing’ label.

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And as usual the green-washing is confusing the consumer. The consumer, full of good intentions, isn’t aware that the claim “bio-degradable” means, that the bottle shouldn’t be deposited into the recycling stream for PET or plastic in general, as it shouldn’t be in the recycling stream at all.
But how can the consumer know? It’s therefore that with pleasure I read an article in Plastic News (which I partially will quote here) relating about the (in North Carolina and Alabama) proposed laws that would require containers made from bio-degradable or compostable plastic to be labelled “non-recyclable”.

Introduced, last month in North Carolina and Alabama the bills would prevent any plastic containers, including beverage bottles, sold or distributed in those states from being labelled compostable, bio-degradable or degradable unless the container is also clearly marked “not recyclable, do not recycle”.

According to regional recycling experts, the proposed laws aim to prevent contamination of the plastics recycling stream and protect what has become a robust and growing industry in the Southeast. The laws would cover resins containing degradable additives, as well as compostable bio-resins like polylactic acid.
“We came to the conclusion that we had this very important part of our economy that we needed to protect, that we needed to grow, and we didn’t want anything to slow that growth down”, said Scott Mouw, state recycling program director in North Carolina.

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More than 6,000 people in the Southeast work in manufacturing businesses that depend on using recycled plastic feedstock to make consumer-ready goods. About 60 facilities in the region contribute USD 3 billion in value to the domestic economy, according to the Southeast Recycling Development Council Inc., a non-profit coalition of 11 states including North Carolina and Alabama.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources took an in-depth look at degradable plastics. The staff researched degradability claims made by manufacturers and the potential advantages of the material, and gathered the opinions of trade organizations and other industry players. The department also talked with reclaimers and recyclers in the region, many of which had serious concerns about degradable plastics, including their ability to detect it in the recycling stream and the costs of accommodating degradable material.

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One North Carolina recycler is quoted, saying: “This is potentially a nightmare for us. It’s going to diminish the faith that people have in this material as a feedstock and the products that are made from it.”

According to the Southeast Recycling Development Council, degradable additives prevent resin from being reliably recycled and manufactured into new products, and are not useful in reducing marine debris or controlling litter. Other industry groups, including the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and the National Association for PET Container Resources, echo that position.

“If we’re trying to recycle resins, we need durable resin, not degradable resin. Recycling and degradability are really not compatible,” said the council’s executive director, Will Sagar. “Neither one of these bills is banning [degradable] bottles; just labelling them so the consumer knows not to put them in recycling”.
He added that there might be good uses for degradable plastics, such as agricultural film, but those uses don’t include PET bottles that are being recycled.

Conflicting messages of compostability, degradability and recyclability can confuse consumers, creating more problems for recyclers.

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“The public is very confused about plastic bottle recycling, about recycling in general, so clarity is really important”. Scott Mouw illustrated his point with a water bottle from Project 7, a brand of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Products for Good Inc. made from PET with a biodegradable additive from Enso Plastics of Mesa, Ariz. The bottle’s label says it will break down in a landfill in one to five years, but can also be recycled like regular PET. “When confronted with mixed messages, consumers don’t know what to do”, he said.

I really hope that more states will follow the lead of North Carolina.

4 responses to “Additives and the Farce of Bio-Degradability

  1. It is unfortunate that you have not read any scientific data on what you are writing about. Specifically around micro-biodegradable additives.

    So we will start here, reaching out to you.

    First and foremost your comment on “small fragments” and “micro biodegradable” is incorrect, this should state “oxo-degradable”, not “micro-degradable”. There is a big difference between oxo and bio as one is an organic reaction relying on microorganisms, which are natural and oxo-degradable is also an organic “chemical” reaction which is done by UV light reacting with the metal salts, iron and cassava starch which breaks the polymer chain by forcing it to crack. These are 2 separate ways.

    1. Unnatural(Oxo-degradable)
    2.Natural(Biodegradable)

    The reason I point this out is very simple, plastic is going to biodegrade by microorganisms anyways. This has been proven by many scientists around the world, including 16 year old canadian high school students. You can either read the University of Ben Guron studies on our website or look for them online.

    Micro-biodegradable additives are additives which enhance what is already happening. So while recycling is beneficial, which we all agree, micro biodegradable is managing the 90% of plastic which is discarded. If the United States had 99% reclamation of plastic, I may lean towards your argument. Unfortunately, that is not the case and less than 10% is recycled.

    So while we can all promote recycling, the reality of it is, few collection methods exist in the world to recycle all plastic.

    Jack Roberts

    • Jack, thanks for your comment. Your argumentation is in line what I wrote. I never said that plastic don’t degrade and I never said that additives don’t accelerate the process. There is no scientific study argueing that biodegradation accelerated by additives enrich the soil. Furthermore you missed the point of the article. The article is about the negative influence of additives in the recycling stream, disqualifying the recyclate. Recycling is money, additives don’t add anything to the value of the product.
      Your claim that less than 10% of the plastic packaging is recycled is untrue. Read some reports.

  2. What you don’t relize is that on;y 12% of all plastics are reycled. The rest end up in a landfill. So the logical use of this material not being recycled is to make it landfill biodegradable, not using an oxy or a biobased material that cannot be recycled with mainstream plastics. Landfill biodegradables will not contaminate any resin they are recycled with. The article showed that no biodegradable plastic person was consulted, only recyclers. If they had spoken to someone with biodegradable knowledge, I doubt this bill would have gotten anywhere as part of the data is incorrect ! Personally, I believe in recycling but look up the stats- it just is not happening. I would like to see plastics that are both recycled and landfill biodegradable.

    • Leslie and Anton – You are both right, but missing a key piece of information. Yes, a much too small percentage of plastic is currently recycled, but the primary limiting factor is not collection. It is the requirement for sorting by grade and washing. PET recycling is already a robust business and continuously growing percentage is being recycled. Making PET “biodegradable” causes more problems than it solves and is an economically inferior solution. Other grades of plastic waste are a much bigger problem. Fortunately, there is a technology that makes recycling of commingled plastic waste possible, practical and profitable. Only minimal sorting is required to achieve a good mix ratio and the system is tolerant of typical contaminants. This technology has been in use in Europe for many years and is now coming to America. It is possible to not only take in and recycle all thermoplastics in the “new” recycling waste stream, but also to “mine” landfills and mixed dumping material and to use ASR waste for raw material. This system turns commingled waste plastic directly into end products that are superior in performance, durability and versatility to leading WPC products and treated lumber. Earth-buried and water-submerged construction is no problem, and mildew/mold/algae do not attack or collect on this material like on WPC products. It also more stable – expands and contracts far less from heat and humidity changes than WPC or treated lumber. This market is well over $5 billion annually. I feel this technology is the highest potential solution to a problem that my organization has been working on for years. Check out http://www.jetrecycling.com.

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