NEW ORLEANS — Laws proposed in North Carolina and Alabama could require containers made from biodegradable or compostable plastic to be labeled non-recyclable.
Filed last month, the proposed laws — House Bill 315, introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly, and Senate Bill 298 and House Bill 468, introduced in the Alabama Legislature — would prevent any plastic containers, including beverage bottles, sold or distributed in those states from being labeled compostable, biodegradable or degradable unless the container is also clearly marked "not recyclable, do not recycle."
In Alabama, the proposed law would also require containers to comply with the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides before claiming to be compostable, biodegradable or degradable.
All three bills are currently in committee. If passed, they would go into effect July 1, 2014.
The proposed laws would cover resins containing degradable additives, as well as compostable bioresins like polylactic acid. They aim to prevent contamination of the plastics recycling stream and protect what has become a robust and growing industry in the Southeast, said regional recycling experts.
"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 $3 billion in value to the domestic economy, according to the Southeast Recycling Development Council Inc., a nonprofit coalition of 11 states including North Carolina and Alabama.
In North Carolina, the recycling industry employs more than 15,000 and includes numerous plastic bottle reclaimers and manufacturers that use recycled plastic, according to HB 315.
Mouw discussed the bills, and gave an overview of North Carolina's recycling industry, in a presentation at the Plastics Recycling Conference, held March 19-20 in New Orleans.
He said the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, based in Raleigh, 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.
Mouw quoted one North Carolina recycler as 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, de¬gradable 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, by telephone. "Neither one of these bills is banning [degradable] bottles; just labeling them so the consumer knows not to put them in recycling."
Sagar 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, Mouw said.
"The public is very confused about plastic bottle recycling, about recycling in general, so clarity is really important," he said.
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.
Danny Clark, president of Enso, said the company does not claim that its ENSO Restore additive will break down in one to five years. Instead, the company claims that PET plastics enhanced with the additive will biodegrade in microbial environments more than 95 percent faster than plastics without the additive.
The Restore additive also does not contaminate the recycle stream, he said in an email.
Older technologies, such as degradable plastics and bioplastics, can be confused for standard plastics and contaminate the recycling streams of various polymers, he said. In contrast, Restore is a biodegrable technology and "is not considered a degradable or bioplastics technology and was specifically designed to comingle with the existing recycle streams."
So far, people seem to understand the importance of the plastics recycling industry in North Carolina, Mouw said later in a phone interview, adding that the bill has a "positive path forward."
The degradable industry might try to campaign against the proposed law, but it doesn't have a physical footprint in the region. Meanwhile, recycling is a strong, indigenous industry with some real concerns, he added.
Sagar would not predicate the bill's success in Alabama, but encouraged recyclers in the region to contact their legislators.