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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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The business model for his startup, BioCor, is to purchase PLA scrap from packagers and recyclers or directly from facilities, such as entertainment or sports venues, and sell it to the Wisconsin facility, which breaks it down into its component lactic acid and sells it back to NatureWorks … which then turns it back into PLA.

This would allow recyclers who are currently losing money due to bales of PET contaminated with PLA to turn that deficit into a revenue stream by removing the PLA and selling it to BioCor. NatureWorks would rely less on field corn as a feedstock and greatly increase the recycled content of PLA. And eventually, more PLA recycling facilities would be built around the country, thereby reducing transportation costs and closing the loop more tightly.

Plus, recycling PLA allows the embedded energy inside each cup – which is lost when the material is composted – to be reused. “We don’t think composting PLA makes a lot of sense – except for applications in the food service industry where it might facilitate more food diversion from the landfills, ” says Steve Davies, marketing and PR director for NatureWorks. “But if you have a bag full of plastic PLA cups, why would you compost that? We’d rather preserve the value of the PLA molecule [and reuse it].”

Centers is keen to gather up as many of those PLA molecules as possible. “Our goal is to collect 400,000 pounds per month,” he says. He’s certainly got his work cut out for him. In its first year of operation, BioCor has only scared up about 180,000 pounds of the stuff.

Today, nearly half of all bioplastic packaging in the world is PLA, according to research firm Pira International. If it continues to dominate the field, BioCor has a real shot at developing a nationwide PLA collection infrastructure. That would help make PLA a truly renewable resource, and it might just make it a little easier to put bioplastic packaging in its right place.

Just don’t forget to keep the PlantBottles out of the compost bin.

Mary Catherine O’Connor is an independent journalist. She last wrote for the Journal about conservation photographer Joe Riis.

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