Concerned that corn-based polylactide bottles will disrupt and contaminate the lucrative recycled PET stream, a coalition of five recycling associations and two nonprofit recyclers asked PLA resin producer NatureWorks LLC on Oct. 19 to place a moratorium on any further expansion of PLA into bottles.
But the Minnetonka, Minn.-based company, a subsidiary of Cargill Inc., disputed those complaints and said that while it is more than willing to discuss the coalition's concerns, it intends to pursue bottle applications, particularly in water, fresh dairy and cold juice applications.
``Those are key areas for us and have a reasonable amount of growth,'' said Brian Glasbrenner, director of global bottle business development for NatureWorks. Water-bottle sales are growing 9-11 percent annually, he added.
Presently, NatureWorks supplies resin for bottles to Biota Brands of America Inc., a regional packager of spring water in Ouray, Colo., and to Belu Natural Mineral Water in London.
But, industry sources said NatureWorks will announce a significant bottle deal, possibly as soon as the week of Oct. 23. ``They are going to be moving very aggressively in the bottle market shortly,'' said one source. ``And we needed to ask for a moratorium before they did that.''
The crux of the issue for the seven members of the coalition is the fear that separating PLA from PET bottles will be too costly and not add to their revenue streams, because there is not yet a market for recycled PLA. The five association members of the coalition are the Ecology Center, the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Plastics Redesign Project and the GrassRoots Recycling Network.
``The equipment to sort PLA from PET is extraordinarily expensive and there is no payback if the materials don't have a market or there are not enough of them,'' said Tim Brownwell, co-president of Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis, a nonprofit recycler. ``So you are just adding costs. What is at jeopardy is our revenues on PET, which are significant to the economics of providing affordable recycling service nationwide.''
According to Brownell, PET accounts for 1-1.5 percent of materials at the Eureka site, but 10 percent of its revenue.
``The problem is not technological, it is an economic issue,'' agreed Eric Lombardi, president of Broomfield, Colo.-based nonprofit recycler Eco-Cycle. Lombardi also serves as president of GrassRoots Recycling. ``I have no ability to separate it. We hand-sort our materials and so do most recyclers, and the two products look identical.''
He said optical-sorting equipment - which can cost $200,000 or more - is ``too expensive for all but the top 10 percent of recyclers in the U.S.'' Recyclers are concerned that the inability to sort PLA bottles from PET bottles will contaminate a waste stream that today pays recyclers 20-25 cents per pound for the 1 billion pounds of PET resin recycled annually, he said.
But NatureWorks said that while contamination is a potential issue, recyclers would need to collect significantly more PLA bottles than currently are produced for that to occur. Also, it said, they can prevent the problem by using infrared optical equipment to sort the bottles.
``PLA could be 10 percent of that recycle stream and not bother [recycled-content] bottles at all,'' in terms of contamination, said Glenn Johnston, director of regulatory affairs and technical issues with NatureWorks. Above that level, he said PLA could reduce clarity and add a haze to the container around the neck, thread and cap - but without affecting performance.
What's more, he pointed out, based on the current recycling rate of 14 percent for plastic water bottles, theoretically only 14 million pounds of PLA bottles would be collected for every 100 million pounds of PLA bottles produced - which would be a small amount compared with the 1 billion pounds of PET being recycled annually today.
Johnston said the U.S. recycling market is moving more toward optical and infrared sorting to separate a variety of materials and create a high-value recycling stream.
``Hand-sorting is a low-tech solution that doesn't produce a high-quality bale. Auto-sorting is going to be the next standard because it produces a high-value product for the recycler,'' he said.
Yet for the recyclers, the issue still comes back to costs they do not want to incur.
``We've told NatureWorks to get their engineers to design a less-expensive optical sorter,'' Lombardi said. ``But it is not here today and it is not going to get dirt-cheap.''
He and others in the coalition also are concerned that there is not a strong market for recycled PLA, and that it will not command the same price as recycled PET.
``I have no idea of what the value of this is. There is no recycling market for them anywhere near the value we get for PET,'' Lombardi said.
NatureWorks - which has a buy-back program for companies that recycle PLA to their specifications in bales - conceded that there is not a strong recycling market today for recycled PLA.
``The market is not developed now,'' Glasbrenner said. ``But their fears are because it is a new polymer. There wasn't a market value for PET initially either for the first five years.''
But Peter Anderson, staff director of the Madison, Wis.-based Plastics Redesign Project and executive director of the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry, also in Madison, disagreed.
``We don't think you should roll out large numbers until you get these questions resolved,'' he said. ``I don't believe that you can talk constructively going forward if it is going to substantially harm recycling. You can't put the genie back in the bottle after it is out.''