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Compostable or Recyclable? Why Bioplastics Are Causing an Environmental Headache

Let's shine a light on bioplastic packaging and its end-of-life story, because you'll be seeing more and more of it in the coming years.

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But even if the PLA and PET are put in their proper bins, one can argue that the recyclable PET’s end of life scenario is better than compostable PLA’s. For one thing, the composting facility is likely to pull that PLA cup out of the compost material and trash it. “Anything that looks like plastic is a problem to composters,” Cornell says, because they can’t easily discern whether a material is a compostable bioplastic when it’s moving quickly past on a conveyer belt.

For composters who cater to organic farmers, bioplastic can be an even bigger problem. Because bioplastics go through a process of polymerization, they are considered a synthetic material and therefore don’t meet the USDA’s National Organic Program’s standards. “We might consider toxicity of a material, too, but the first thing we consider is whether it is synthetic,” says Lindsay Fernandez-Salvador, a program manager at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), which determines whether specific agriculture input products, such as compost, meet the organic standards. “And if it is, we disallow it.”

Needless to say, this creates a bit of a quandary for composters who want to maintain their OMRI listing but who also want to accept bioplastic packaging in their intake materials. They simply can’t do both. “The compostable plastic industry started making this material without input from the composting industry,” says Will Bakx, co-owner of Sonoma Compost in Petaluma, CA. “They never thought through the life cycle.”

As a result of this disconnect, you might be dutifully placing compostable plastic into a municipal compost collection bin (assuming you live in one of the few US cities that currently provides this type of curbside collection) only to have the commercial composter pull it out of the stream and divert it to the landfill.

That’s a nasty carbon footprint for those eco-containers.

A Brighter Future

Because it is made from agricultural byproducts and its recycling infrastructure is already established, bio-based PET and HDPE, such as the PlantBottle packaging that Coca-Cola uses, is a step in the right direction. (But while 100 percent of an HDPE PlantBottle is bio-based, only 30 percent of a PET PlantBottle is bio-based, though Coca-Cola says it is working to boost that percentage. And PepsiCo recently announced it is transitioning to 100 percent bio-based feedstock for its PET bottle.)

Compostable materials like PLA are obviously a step in the right direction as well. And while these materials don’t add any nutrient value to compost, many experts agree that they do add some value to the compost stream by making it easier for consumers or restaurants to divert food waste from a landfill. If, say, your week-old take-out leftovers are in a compostable bioplastic container, you might be more likely to toss the whole box in the compost bin than you would be to open it up and dump the food out.

But much of the PLA used today is in the form of single-use beverage cups, which don’t play a role in diverting food waste from landfills. In fact, the PLA beer cup is becoming a ubiquitous sight in beer gardens and venues that want to “do the right thing.” Today, the hundreds or thousands of empties that pile up at the end of a festival or sports event are likely landfilled. Or, perhaps, erroneously sent to recyclers, who then landfill them, or send them to composting facilities, which may or may not accept them.

Mike Centers, an entrepreneur based in Northern California, is trying to create a third option: PLA recycling. Currently, there are two PLA recyclers in the world – one in Wisconsin and another in Europe. But there’s no collection infrastructure, so Centers is trying to build one.

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