The misconceptions among the public and legislators - including the idea that bioplastics are good and traditional plastics are bad - are a significant challenge for plastics manufacturers. It is up to the industry to re-educate people about the realities, said Seetha Coleman-Kammula, co-founder of Simply Sustain LLC, a Newark, Del., consulting firm focused on the environment.
``Plastics are useful,'' Coleman-Kammula said at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference, held March 11-12 in Orlando. ``We have to go back and engage society about the benefits and the realities surrounding plastics.''
But the task won't be easy. State and local attacks on plastics increased by 70 percent in 2007, according to the American Chemistry Council, in Arlington, Va.
``Regulators and legislators are challenging the credibility of industry-funded science,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``They just simply don't believe you. If you say: `The jury is out. We need to do one more test.' They say: `Come on, make up your mind. Do something.' ''
Part of the problem is an inadequate recycling infrastructure in the United States and many other countries and the belief that bio-based products will simply break down, even in a home compost pile, she said.
``Petroleum-based plastics are not necessarily bad if you recycle them, because you recover a lot of the nonrenewable energy you put into them,'' Coleman-Kammula said. But, she added, more than 85 percent of plastics in the U.S. winds up in landfills.
``We need to engage communities in recycling because it is completely in their hands. Many materials recovery facilities and municipalities don't understand the value of plastics,'' she said.
Other countries face the same dilemma, said Edward Kosior, managing director of Nextek Pty. Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, a consulting firm specializing in environmental and recycling solutions for plastics.
Other than for PET and high density polyethylene, ``there is no existing infrastructure for recycling in the United Kingdom,'' said Kosior, who also is technical director for Closed Loop Recycling Ltd., a recycler and adviser in Dagenham, England. ``We have to develop a simple way to deal with mixed plastics waste because the volume of other plastics in the U.K. is twice as much as the bottled plastics that are recycled.''
Nextek is researching how to adapt its HDPE bottle-to-bottle technology to other plastics, and testing what sorting techniques and technologies can best separate the different types of plastics, he said. ``Rapid technology development, if viable, can be put in place quickly,'' said Kosior, adding that resin manufacturers, packaging manufacturers, brand owners, retailers, consumers and reclaimers need to work together to develop solutions.
The recycling challenges are similar in the U.S., said Coleman-Kammula. When there is a uniform polymer from which a product is made, like PET bottles, it can work. Otherwise, it is difficult.
But, at the same time that the industry works on solving recycling challenges, it must also dispel the myths surrounding the biodegradability and compostability of products made from bio-based resins.
``Bioplastics are potentially biodegradable and compostable, but they are not necessarily good unless systems to compost them exist,'' said Coleman-Kammula. ``And we don't have an industrial compost structure in the U.S., let alone a recycling structure.
``The premise is that you put them in the soil and they will decompose,'' she said. ``But when you put them in your own backyard, it doesn't compost. And, if they end up in landfills, which is where they end up today, they release methane gas - which is 23 times more potent than carbon-dioxide emissions.''
Robert Dvorak, European project manager at Nextek Ltd. in London, agreed. ``Recycling of products made from [polylactide] today is poor,'' he said. ``It ends up in landfills, creating the issue of methane gas.''
It is a point on which even the Biodegradable Products Institute of New York concurs.
``The overwhelming majority of consumers believe that these products will `biodegrade' in landfills,'' BPI said in a Feb. 29 news release. ``Yet, today's landfills are engineered to eliminate moisture and retard biodegradation.''
BPI said there is no scientific data showing that biodegradable plastics in landfills will break down completely into nothing in 12 months or less. In the release, the group also advised manufacturers, consumers and communities to pursue solutions that encompass not just biodegradability, but also source reduction, reuse, and increased use of recycling and composting.