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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.