Corn Plastic Sounds Great, But Recycling It Is DifficultOregonian (Portland, OR) -- Oct. 24 -- PLA, or corn plastic, is made with Midwestern corn, not Middle East oil. Its production releases fewer toxic substances than making petroleum plastic and uses less energy, spewing an estimated two-thirds less greenhouse gas.
And corn plastic can be composted, incinerated or recycled, its manufacturer says, offering "the most alternatives" of any plastic to landfilling.
Even so, Oregon's recycling pros are awfully down on it.
Why? Corn PLA, made mainly by Minnesota-based Natureworks, composts only in high-temperature commercial composting systems, not backyards. It's difficult to distinguish from regular plastics in the recycling mix. And a small amount can foul recycling of conventional plastic, one of the biggest-payoff items for recyclers nationwide.
"As a regular resident, you can't compost it. You can't recycle it," says Lauren Norris, coordinator of the Portland area's master recycler program. "Really, you're giving people something that has to be landfilled."
Like ethanol, biodiesel and wind power, PLA was widely lauded at first blush. Five years later, it's moving into the consumer mainstream -- and getting the critical second look typical when green breakthroughs scale up.
The scrutiny is particularly relevant in Oregon. Kroger, owner of Fred Meyer, QFC and other grocers, is the first national chain to carry Primo water, packaged in the first corn plastic water bottle intended for U.S. grocery shelves.
Recycling advocates say PLA water bottles sold at retail are most likely to contaminate recyclables. That threat is greatest in states where recycling's high because of "bottle bills" -- return deposits on bottles and cans.
Oregon's nickel deposit for plastic water bottles takes effect Jan. 1.
With other grocers, the Kroger subsidiaries and Trader Joe's also carry other PLA containers, including packaging for organic salad greens and herbs, fruit and specialty items.
NatureWorks and Primo say the concerns are overblown. Contamination is highly unlikely given the low levels of PLA in the market, they say, and Primo used test runs in North Carolina and New England to confirm that before launching. Primo is also in a fight for shelf space at Fred Meyer and elsewhere, and it's not clear the product will stick.
Despite recycler reservations, the companies recommend recycling the bottles.
NatureWorks says it's deliberately limiting the introduction of PLA bottles, and it has agreements with customers to slow distribution if "serious contamination" shows up in a market. Other than bottles, the packages PLA supplants are recycled at very low rates.
A 2006 NatureWorks-commissioned study for the German government showed recycling, not composting, is the greenest way to deal with PLA. But for everything but water pollution, the study indicated PLA retains environmental advantages over conventional plastics even if the PLA isn't recycled.
Those advantages will grow, NatureWorks spokeswoman Mary Rosenthal said, as bioplastics draw on more low-fertilizer, low-water plants such as switchgrass.
"It's made from plants that can be grown in 100 days, not oil that takes 100 million years," Rosenthal said. "It comes from a renewable resource with a significantly better carbon footprint. For the consumer, even today, it's a good choice."
NatureWorks, a joint venture of U.S. agricultural mainstay Cargill and Japanese plastic manufacturer Teijin Limited, debuted plastic from corn-based polylactic acid in 2003, converting Nebraska corn to the long polymers that build plastic. It's included in the plastic resin label "7-other," different from the No. 1 and No. 2 plastics most common in curbside recycling.
PLA's least-controversial application is in cafeterias, convention centers and sports venues, where food-contaminated plastic cups, dishes and utensils are tossed in the garbage. Food-service operations can use corn PLA and other bioplastics, shipping their garbage to commercial-scale composters instead of trashing it.
Vancouver-based Burgerville is following that model, sending its leavings to Cedar Grove composting plants near Seattle, which also collect yard and food waste from the Seattle area. But the Burgerville strategy isn't likely to work for curbside recycling, said Jerry Bartlett, a Cedar Grove vice president.
Residents would have to separate some plastics for recycling and others for composting. People would get confused, increasing plastic contamination at the compost plant. "It's really an educational nightmare," Bartlett said.
PLA debuted on the retail side five years ago in Wild Oats and Nature's stores. Wild Oats acquired Nature's, then merged with Whole Foods, which rejected PLA because of concerns about genetically modified corn. Whole Foods packages use plant fiber and compostable cardboard instead.
But PLA spread in other retail chains, and in 2005 NatureWorks said it would accept 40,000-pound truckloads for recycling. No trucks have arrived, company officials said, because recyclers don't separate PLA.
The dearth of recycling options leads to frustration at the Master Recyclers' plastic roundups, which collect plastics that can't be recycled at curbside.
At a roundup in north Portland earlier this month, master recycler Rachel Zarfas policed the No. 7 bin, frequently rejecting PLA containers. "I tell people the only outlet that I know of is to either re-use this thing somehow or put it in your trash."
The sorting plants that process curbside recycling are more worried about tubs and bottles made with PLA. Residents are used to putting those items in their carts.
A coalition of recyclers, led by the Plastics Redesign Project, asked NatureWorks in 2006 for a moratorium on PLA bottles until recycling issues were resolved. Then Primo debuted in April.
"Somewhere in the last couple months things seem to have gone off the rails," said Peter Anderson, the project's director.
The managers of Oregon's bottle bill also have concerns.
PLA is probably insignificant compared to the huge stream of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, labeled No. 1 for recycling, said John Andersen, president of Container Recovery Inc.
But if a consumer returns a lot of bottles at once, it could contaminate a load that buyers happen to test for purity, Andersen said, lowering the price Oregon gets for recyclables. PLA also melts at lower temperatures, recyclers say, a nuisance in dryers used to process recycled PET.
Estimates of the amount needed to contaminate a PET load are as high as 4 percent and as low as one bottle in 1,000, though the lower number comes from a study commissioned by a European PET group.
"You can't just tell me it's not a problem," Andersen said of his talks with Primo. "You've got to provide a solution."
Primo is leading a new bioplastics recycling consortium that includes recyclers, regulators and academics. Tim Ronan, Primo's marketing vice president, notes recyclers have adjusted to many packaging changes. Tests using relatively inexpensive black light to distinguish PLA bottles show promise.
Meantime, no evidence of significant PLA contamination has surfaced, Ronan said. "People are damning something before it's a problem."
Fred Meyer realizes PLA bottles have environmental drawbacks, spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said.
"It's a tough one for us," Merrill said. "There's not really a good choice here."
Author: Scott Learn, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore., 503-294-7657, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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