Dordan LCA? And, PHOTOS of “home compostable” bioplastics a year after being composted

May 23, 2012


Phew, Chicago has survived NATO. For residents of Chicago, the assembly of world leaders at McCormick Place over the weekend was inconvenient but cool. The Loop essentially shut down for four days, as all were warned of the closures and delays. Some lucky ducks even had a 4-day weekend because offices closed in anticipation of the protestors. Metra passengers were not allowed to bring food or drink on the train, and all bags were screened prior to boarding. As a resident of downtown Chicago, I was totally impressed by the extensive yet organized presence of cops; they circled every compromised building and lined the protest route. While one violent squirmish did break out between police and demonstrators at Michigan and Cermak, it was provoked by only a handful of anarchist protesters (The Blak Bloc”) and was contained with minimum force soon thereafter. Check out this pic I took Friday afternoon; notice the homeland security SUVs parked as far as the eye can see?

Today we are going to talk about developments with my LCA inquiry introduced in May 11th’s post. AND, to follow, for your viewing pleasure, pictures of home compostable bioresins a year after being home composted. Oh the anticipation!

To recap, what I mean when I say “my LCA inquiry,” is I am investigating the value of conducting an LCA of Dordan’s conversion process in order to: (1) establish a baseline off which environmental progress can be gauged, (2) compare with industry average and/or other conversion processes, (3) submit to available LCIA databases in order to provide more current data on the environmental profile of thermoforming, and (4) understand the methodology and application of LCA.

This investigation was inspired by the SPC suggestion of collective reporting among its member companies in order to demonstrate to outside stakeholders the value of SPC membership; and, research into LCA as per Dr. Karli Verghese’s presentation at Sustainability in Packaging (click here to download the Report).

After reaching out to the SPC re: aiding in the development of tools to perform an environmental assessment of Dordan’s conversion process, it was suggested I propose the idea to the membership; if there was membership interest, I could start a member-led working group dedicated to creating methodologies for LCA application to manufacturing processes.

Since I last posted, I had the opportunity to speak with LCA practitioners in the SPC membership about my Dordan LCA inquiry. Here are a couple conversation takeaways:

It is in a company’s interest to perform an LCA of its processes if said processes are more efficient/innovative than the industry standard; the industry standard for thermoforming can be teased from the available LCIA databases, like EcoInvent and the U.S. Life Cycle Inventory Database.

A good way to determine if your processes are more efficient than the industry average, and therefore an LCA is warranted, is to perform an inventory analysis: First, determine what your process’s main resource consumptions are i.e. water and electricity. Then, collect all information pertaining to the consumption of these resources via energy and/or water bills. Consult the industry average’s rates for these environmental indicators and see how your processes compare in the context of electricity and water consumption per some functional unit i.e. 10,000 packages produced.

If you determine that a full LCA is warranted, there are MANY ways to go about it. However, it is crucial that the results/findings of which are 3rd party-reviewed in order to validate the study. This was explained to me as being quite the process, and comes with a price tag.

Based on these insights, I am going to conduct an inventory analysis of Dordan’s energy consumption per a-yet-to-be established functional unit in order to compare with the industry average for thermoforming. Stay tuned!

My next post will discuss feedback from the last portion of the Walmart Packaging SVN meeting.

As an aside, in previous posts I alluded to an S+S Sorting pilot that looks to compare the reprocessing of thermoform vs. bottle PET flake. Remember? Anyway, my colleague at S+S has yet to get back to me with the results of this pilot. Stay tuned!

AND, do you remember way back when, at the start of Dordan’s Bio Resin Show N Tell research (click here to download Report), when we tossed some of the home compostable certified bioresins (PHA, Cellulous Acetate) into Dordan’s home compost to see if the materials biodegraded? Well, this spring I analyzed the compost pile to determine the rate of biodegradation and am sad to report that little had changed in regards to the composition of the material: while lightened in color and somewhat more brittle, both the PHA and Cellulous Acetate, certified for home-composting, remain completely intact; you can even see the Dordan logo embossed on the cavity. Please note, however, that Dordan’s compost pile has had its fair share of growing pains and the “bioplastics composting trial” may not reflect a 100% active home compost.

Pictured: PHA, formed into tray with Dordan embossed logo on sample press, home composted Spring 2011.

Pictured: Melted PHA plastic from sample press forming; demonstrates lack of biodegradation.

Pictured: Close-up of Dordan logo embossed in PHA tray cavity

Pictured: Compilation of PHA and Cellulous Acetate scrap, certified for home-composting, a year after being composted.

Pictured: Cellulous Acetate scrap, certified for home composting, a year after being home composted.

5 Responses to “Dordan LCA? And, PHOTOS of “home compostable” bioplastics a year after being composted”

  1. Ms. Slavin, very interesting! A few questions if you please (and do forgive my lack of expertise):
    -Are these bioplastics or petroleum base plastics with additives? And what are the practical advantages & disadvantages of using either?
    -What was the average temperature of the composting box in which the plastic was kept? And did all the non-plastic organic materials compost as normal?
    -How does any photodegradation that you’ve studied compare with any biodegradation results in these types of plastics?
    Thank you.

    • Hey Ken! Thanks for your support! Please consult my responses below:

      –PHA and Cellulous Acetate, from what I understand, are bio-based and “biodegradable” within the intended disposal environment i.e. industrial vs. home composting facility. PHA is like the sister of PLA, which was the first “bioplastic” marketed by NatureWorks; these materials have a completely different synthesis process than conventional, fossil-fuel based resins. Polylactide or Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a synthetic, aliphatic polyester from lactic acid; lactic acid can be industrially produced from a number of starch or sugar containing agricultural products. Poly Hydroxy Alkanoate (PHA) is made through a “patented process for microbial fermentation of plant-derived sugar.” PHA is unique in that it represents the only class of polymers that are converted directly by microorganisms from feedstock to the polymetric form—no additional polymerizations steps being required. I visited the producer of PHA at their plant in Boston and they were “growing” the material inside switch-blade grass. Crazy, right?!? Cellulous Acetate derives its feedstock from cellulous–pulp–acetic anhydride, a derivative of acetic acid, and different plasticizers.

      These materials differ from your inquiry into “petroleum-based plastics with additives,” which can be anything from the PlantBottle i.e. “bio-PET” to “oxo and/or photo-degradables. These materials don’t necessarily imply biodegradation, as in the case with those described above.
      “Biodegradable plastics” like PLA, PHA and Cellulous Acetate have limitations insofar as heat deflection (material begins to loose its form at high temperatures), cost, and performance is concerned (PLA is often brittle and requires additives to render it thermoformable, which compromises its “biodegradability).

      “Bio-based plastics” like the PlantBottle have limitations in that they are not designed to biodegrade but intended to be recycled mechanically. Other limitations concern availability/scale/price.

      Insofar as practical applications are concerned, PLA has found use in food-packaging like berry clamshells, as the shipment of which already requires refrigerated trucks, an unnecessary expense for non-perishable goods. PLA is oftentimes blended with other plasticizers to enhance its properties; examples include “potato” cutlery. I am not aware of what markets are using PHA, if any, as the price point far exceeds traditional resins. Cellulous Acetate was a popular resin for thermoforming in the 1970s-1980s for its clarity and cut ability; however, the price today renders it obsolete. That being said, Cellulous Acetate has found its way into flexible packaging, where the price point may differ from rigid sheet.

      –I am unaware of what the average temperature of Dordan’s compost was/is; however, all organic materials did biodegrade; we used the mulch on our organic garden last spring.

      –I have not performed any research on “photo-degradation” because from what I understand, the science is sketchy and the idea that sunlight is available in landfills and/or compost piles to catalyze the biodegradation process seems somewhat flawed…it’s super dark under several feet of “garbage.”

      I encourage you to download the Bio Resin Show N Tell and Bio-based/”Biodegradable” Plastics Report from our website; you can find both reports here. Also, if interested in the chemistry of biodegradation I can email you a rather lengthy study conducted by Dr. Ramani Narayan of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Michigan State University.

      Hope that helps! Dont’t hesitate should you have further questions!

      • Hey Ms. Slavin!

        Thank you for your very informative response! I really appreciate you taking the time.

        You have an excellent point as far as photodegradation–plastics in a landfill unexposed to sunlight, degradative substances, or extreme heat will simply not decay. Under just about any circumstance photodegradation is not a practical option.

        Something I notice, that has probably been an issue almost as old as the invention of plastic, is that fossil fuel based resins appear superior in every practical way (lower cost, versatility, durability) except in ultimate degradation, to biobased resins. It seems that it is the difficult truth of current plastic technology. But maybe some day . . .

        Btw, from your new post- I think it’s cool (and ultimately the way major change happens) that you actually work to develop strategic tools for your customers, as opposed to just your own manufacturing.

        I’m glad there are people like you who care about the environment enough to help shake things up!

        Anyway, thanks again!

  2. Ann Hoffner said

    I visited the Doris Duke Farm in Hillsborough, New Jersey on its opening day this past weekend. Doing admirable work, turning the 2700 acre estate largely back to nature. I was disturbed to see however that they had bio-bags, corn-based compostable plastic bags, and their cups were PLA-based Greenware by NatureWorks. I suspect the visitors who take their bags and cups home will put them in the trash thinking they are doing a wonderful thing, or they will put them in their recycling for the sorters to deal with!

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