WOW! As per my last post I was hoping my friend from Algix would get back to me with a more technical discussion of the company’s technology synthesizing bio plastics from algae and BOY HOWDY did I! Check out the awesome responses below.

QUESTION:

Please describe the relationship between textile manufacturers/dairy producers and algae. In other words, how does algae become a waste product of these industries’ process and how is it ideal for manipulation into bio-based plastics?

ANSWER:

Many types of algae and aquatic plants have been used for cleaning waters rich in inorganic nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus compounds. The high nutrient content accelerates the growth rates and increases the protein content of a variety of “nuisance” algae and aquatic plants or “aquatic macrophytes”. The enormous “algal blooms” are seen as not only a nuisance but an environmental hazard due to the oxygen demand the algal cells require during night time respiration which can suffocate fish and other animals if the excess nutrients run off or leach into nearby water bodies. Many industries produce large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus-rich waste-water, such as the agricultural livestock farms, i.e. dairies and swineries, fisheries, etc; as well as industrial sources such as processing plants for textiles, municipalities, distilleries, biorefineries, etc.

ALGIX, LLC is located in Georgia, hence we are focusing our efforts on industries in the southeast where we have longer growing seasons, a warmer climate and an abundance of water compared to north or southwest. The “Carpet Capital of the World” is located in Dalton, Georgia, which has over 150 carpet plants which produce millions of gallons of nutrient rich waste water. Research conducted at the University of Georgia, has demonstrated high growth rates from various strains of algae and isolated top performing microalgae strains for further development. ALGIX is in discussions with companies there to scale up biomass production and use cultivated algae as a bio-additive in their polymer containing flooring products. Likewise, we are also talking to a variety of compounders that can co-process and blend the aquatic biomass with other base resins, such as PE, PP EVA, PLA, PHA, etc. As product development progresses, various end use applications for algae-blended thermoplastics and bioplastics will arise, which will increase the demand for the raw aquatic feedstocks. The advantage is that industries can effectively capture their lowest-value waste product, i.e. nitrates and phosphates, through bioremediation using algae and aquatic macrophytes. Photosynthesis captures solar energy and converts the waste water nutrients into biomass which can then be used as a raw material for composite formulations to make resins and bioplastics.

As the demand for algal biomass increases, there will be an incentive for other industrial plants to build out algae based water treatment systems and sell the biomass. Livestock operations such as Dairies, Fisheries, etc located in the southeast and southwest can use algae to treat their manure effluents and provide additional biomass to the market. We are in discussions with large dairies companies for building out algal ponds for water treatment and biomass recovery. Over time the aquatic biomass will become a commodity product traded like other traditional agricultural crops. Currently, large amounts of corn are being diverted from food production and enter biofuel or bioplastic production. Thereby, introducing a new, low-Eco footprint biofeedstock will help alleviate the demand on food based crops for plastics and liquid fuel conversion.

QUESTION:

How is post-industrial algae synthesized into bio-based plastics? In other words, how is the protein in algae bound to the plastic components to allow for application to injection molding? What additives are required to allow for the synthesis OR used to increase the properties of the material? I remember discussions of protein-based materials (cellulous) vs. carbon-based (bio-PET) and how the former “connects” to the plastic molecule similar to how the calcium carbonate connects to the PP polymer, for example.

ANSWER:

Algae produced from wastewater treatment has been grown under nitrogen rich conditions, providing an abundance of nitrogen to make protein. During exponential growth phases in algae and aquatic plants, the composition of the biomass is dominated by protein, in the range of 30-60% depending on species. The higher protein content algae or post processed meals may have 50% or more protein which is similar to soy protein meal. Although some companies have announced efforts to refine the algal oils or ferment into ethanol, these approaches require additional refining for synthesizing into “bio-based” monomers and polymers identical to their petroleum counterpart, such as Bio-PET, or bio-polyethylene, etc.

The protein in the biomass is what our process uses as the “polymeric” material in the blends. Proteins, by definition, are polymer chains of amino acids, which offer a variety of hydrophobic and hydrophillic interactions based upon the amino acid profile. Through thermomechanical processing, such as twin screw extrusion, the heat and shear forces exerted on the native protein complexes force them to denature and unfold providing a network of elongated polymer-like threads when blended with a base resin. The proteins have hydroxl groups available that can hydrogen bond and covalently bond in the presence of polar side groups on polymer chains as well as maleated chemical interactions. By adding conventional coupling agents, tensile strength and moisture absorption can be significantly improved.

The remaining portion of the non-protein biomass is usually composed of carbohydrates such as cellulose, hemicellulose, polysaccharides, but have little to no lignin. The crude fiber portion of the biomass has been shown to act like a reinforcing agent, increasing stiffness and tensile strength, but reduces elongation. The Ash fractions can range from 10-30% depending on cultivation method, however we believe the ash or minerals, will behave like a mineral filler, similar to calcium carbonate as it will be homogeneously blended throughout the matrix along with the biomass. Algae grown for bioremediation generally have a low lipid content, around 10% or less, and in cases where algae is being grown for biofuels, with high oil contents, the oil will be extracted leaving a protein-rich post extracted meal which will be well suited for compounding. Other value added compounds, such as high value pigments and antioxidants may also be extracted which will help in being able to modify the plastic color from dark green or brown to a lighter color which is easier to mask with color additives. Biomass particle size is also an important variable and needs to be optimized depending on conversion technology and application.

We have been successful compounding algae blends with some base resins up to 70% bio, however the majority of our formulations used in injection molding are set at a 50/50 blend which provides stronger performance characteristics. However, pure 100% algae dogbones have been made under compression molding, but do not have the performance properties compared to the injection molded blends.

QUESTION:

What is the preferred end-of-life treatment of this unique bio-based plastic? Is it similar to the approach taken by PLA supplier NatureWorks, which looks to generate the quantity necessary to sustain the creation of a new closed-loop recycling process in which PLA would be recycled in its own post-consumer stream?

ANSWER:

In the case that Algae is compounded with biodegradable base resins such as PLA, PHA, PHB, TPS, PBAT, and others, the final bioplastic will have the same or higher degree of biodegradability. Since we are dealing with biomass, the algae component is consumable by microbes, and the slight hydrophillic nature of the resin allows water to penetrate and accelerate the biodegradation process under the proper composting conditions. ALGIX still is testing the biodegradability rate and cannot not comment on degradation curves yet, as most of our research has been on formulation, co-processing, and performance related milestones.

When biomass from any source is compounded with a base resin, the resulting formulation becomes distinct from the recyclable pure resin. This is even the case with different polymer composites that may have two or more resin constituents. Although the biomass will be able to sustain some level of recycling, due to the more fragile nature of the resins bio building blocks, the performance will likely decrease, as with most other conventional recycled resins. We do not necessarily see a unique algal-blended stream of plastics, just due to the numerous variables in the formulations. A recent study by the American Chemical Council found that the US has a dismally low recycling rate below 10% but the state of New Hampshire has an exceptionally high recovery rate of over 40%. Instead of recycling these materials, which requires sophisticated sorting equipment or lots of manual labor, an easier approach was to convert the non-recyclable plastic waste steam into energy using boilers for steam and electricity production. I believe they still recycled some of the more easily sorted materials, like plastic water/soda bottles, just used any non-spec plastic for waste-2-energy…This not only reduced the cost associated with handling and processing the numerous recycling streams, it provided a substantial amount of alternative energy. If algae blended with synthetic non-biodegradable polymers increases in usage, the biomass fraction essentially acts as a bioenergy source at the end of its lifecycle. The conclusion that the ACC drew was that there is a dramatic shift in the amount of states shifting their focusing from complex sorting/recycling to a more direct and streamlined waste-to-energy approach. As Waste-2-energy increases, the concern about having closed loop recycling, although a wonderful concept, will be alleviated because the “other” non-recyclable plastics now can be converted to energy instead of being landfilled. The algae fraction of the plastics represents a carbon neutral component of the resin and energy feedstock.

ALGIX is initially focusing on product streams of plastic that have a low or absent recycling rate due to various factors; these include paint cans, pesticides, fertilizers, mulch films, and carpet products. There exists active programs for recycling carpets by shaving the fibers and grinding the backings for use in new carpets (at some minor percentage) as well as pure post-consumer-grade base resins, usually PP based. New product lines can be generated using post consumer grade resins with post-industrial grade algae biomass to provide a bioresin with a very low eco-footprint. We have a research proposal pending on conducting an LCA based on the algae biorefinery approach for bioplastics to further quantify these environmental and economic benefits.

That should be enough for yall to chew on for a bit…

Let’s all give a big digital THANK YOU to Algix for being so informative and transparent with their exciting new technology!

Hellllooooooo! Man, it has been a crazy week! I had no idea how much Pack Expo would take out of me!

Dordan now has over 30+ followers on Twitter, which makes me feel really cool, but I want MORE MORE MORE. So follow me @DordanMfg. Good times.

Click here to check out Dordan’s 2010 Pack Expo only Show Specials!

Good news: We have a ton attendees looking for us at Pack Expo via our online booth http://my.packexpo.com/pei2010nn/public/Booth.aspx?BoothID=107696, which is super cool, and I have booked interviews with three different packaging publications, so this show should be a grand occasion! We have events almost every night (CardPak’s Sustainability Dinner, AVMP networking event, Meet the Press, and more!) so I am totally PUMPED!

I was at McCormick Place yesterday to set up the booth and it was a rather enjoyable experience: our booth was where it was suppose to be; the Union workers were really helpful; and, I met the floor manager, Louie, who oozes old school Chicago. Dordan’s booth looks great, and I can’t wait for the Show to begin!

Before we get into the meat of today’s post, I came across some random industry tid bits that I thought I would share with you, my packaging and sustainability friends.

First, and this is sort of old news, but did you guys hear about the SRI Consulting study that determined that those countries with adequate space and little recycling infrastructure should landfill PET bottles as opposed to recycle in the context of carbon footprint reduction!?! The name of the report is “PET’s Carbon Footprint: To Recycle or Not to Recycle,” and is described as “an independent evaluation of the carbon footprint of PET bottles with analysis of secondary packaging from cradle to grave and from production of raw materials through disposal.” While the report cost an arm and a leg to download, an abstract of the report is available here: http://www.sriconsulting.com/Press_Releases/Plastic-Bottle-Recycling-Not-Always-Lowest-Carbon-Option_16605.html.

The report concludes:

• Shipping distances are not footprint crucial;
• Incineration creates the highest footprint;
• PET recyclate (HA, I thought I made that word up) has a lower footprint than virgin PET.

Weird bears; I wonder who funded this study…

Next, someone tweeted (yes, I said tweeted) this industry tid bit: “Biopolymers are Dirtier to Produce than Oil-Based Polymers, says Researchers” @ http://www.environmentalleader.com/2010/10/22/biopolymers-are-dirtier-to-produce-than-oil-based-polymers-say-researchers/ .

After perusing the article, I was surprised that PLA exhibited the maximum contribution to eutrophication, as every COMPASS LCA I have performed comparing paper and plastic shows that paper contributes WAY MORE to eutrophication than plastic…but I guess this makes sense in the context of PLA’s contribution because paper is based on a “crop” as is PLA; therefore, require similar resource consumption/toxin emissions?

Then there is this statement, which is crazzzyyyy: “biopolymers exceeded most of the petroleum-based polymers for ecotoxicity and carcinogen emissions.” What does that mean?!? Where are the carcinogens coming from? And, where did these researches get all this LCI data for these new bio resins in order to make the statements they do?

Wow the land of biopolymers is confusion.

And that provides a perfect segway into today’s post.

As you know, many of Dordan’s customers have expressed great interest in biopolymers because, according to a recent consumer research study, “biodegradation” is one of the most desired “green” characteristics of a package in the eyes of the consumer; I guess people don’t like the idea of things persisting for years and years in landfill…

As an aside, did you see this McDonalds Happy Meal biodegradation test?!? Apparently, after 180 days, a Happy Meal did not even begin to show signs of biodegradation! Check it out here: http://www.littleabout.com/Odd/sally-davies-mcdonalds-happy-meal/98413/ .

And, as we all know, it doesn’t matter if it is paper, plastic, or a banana peal; nothing biodegrades in a landfill because there is no oxygen and sunlight. But that is beside the point.
Where was I…?
Yes, we have been asked many questions about biopolymers, many of which, we didn’t have the answers to because depending on who you ask, you get different responses. So, first we did some background research on biodegradable/compostable plastics in general. You can download our report here: http://www.dordan.com/sustainability_ftc.shtml Then we began sampling the available resins and performing internal tests to see how they performed and what applicability they have to the sustainability goals of our customers. Though we have invested a considerable amount of time into trying to understand biopolymers, we still have much to learn; therefore, we decided that during Pack Expo we would share all our findings with attendees in hopes of opening the lines of communication and educating ourselves, our supply chain and our industry about the pros and cons of this new family of non traditional resins. After all, the last thing the plastics industry wants to do is flood the market with something they don’t really understand, from both an energy consumption/GHG emission and end of life management perspective, not to mention price and performance! So, if you come by Dordan’s booth E-6311 we will have 4 different bioresins on display for you to touch and see, accompanied by a lot of good information.

For those of you unable to attend Pack Expo, I have included most of the information below. Enjoy!!!

Cellulous Acetate:

Typical Physical Properties:

• Acceptable for use in food contact packaging;
• High clarity and gloss, with low haze;
• High water vapor transmission rate;
• Good tensile strength and elongation, combined with relatively low tear strength;
• Good die cutting performance and good printability and compatibility with adhesives;
• Available in matt and semi-matt finishes.

Environmental Aspects:

• Feedstock: Cellulous from Sustainable Forestry Initiative managed forestry in North America; acetic anhydride, a derivative of acetic acid; and, a range of different plasticisers.
• Complies with EN 13432 and ASTM D 6400 Standards for industrial biodegradability and compostability; and, received Vincotte OK Compost Home certification.
• Complies with US Coneg limits for heavy metal content in packaging materials.
• Classified in the paper and board category in the UK, in view of its cellulosic base. As a consequence, the levy on cellulous acetate is lower than that on other thermoplastic films which are classified as plastics; however, levies only apply to those markets where EPR legislation exists.
• There is no post consumer or post industrial market for this resin. However, in principal, film is readily recyclable and because of its predominantly cellulosic nature, it is feasible that it can be recycled along with paper in a re-pulping process.

PHA:

Typical physical properties:

• A general purpose, high melt strength material suitable for injection molding, thermoforming, blow/cast film and sheet extrusion;
• Durable and tough;
• Ranging from flexible to rigid;
• Shelf stable;
• Heat and moisture resistant;
• Pending FDA clearance for use in non-alcoholic food contact applications, from frozen food storage and microware reheating to boiling water up to 212 degrees F. The pending clearance will include products such as house-wares, cosmetics and medical packaging.

Environmental Aspects:

• Feedstock: Poly Hydroxy Alkanoate (PHA) polymer 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.
• Complies with EN 13432 and ASTM D 6400 Standards for industrial biodegradability and compostability; complies with ASTM D 7081 Standard for marine biodegradation; received Vincotte OK Compost Home certification; and, received Vincotte OK Biodegradable in Soil certification. The rate and extent of its biodegradability will depend on the size and shape of the articles made from it.
• There is no post consumer or post industrial market for this resin. However, in principal, film is readily recyclable.

PLA:

Typical physical properties:

• Acceptable for use in food-contact packaging;
• Good clarity but can haze with introduction of stress;
• PLA sheet is relatively brittle at room temperature; however, the toughness of the material increases with orientation and therefore thermoformed articles are less brittle than PLA sheet.
• PLA is frequently thermoformed using forming ovens, molds and trim tools designed for PET or PS; however, PLA has a lower softening temperature and thermal conductivity than PET or PS, which results in longer cooling time in the mold for PLA vs. PET or PS.
• Exposure to high temperatures and humidity during shipping or storage can adversely affect the performance and appearance of resin.
• At temperatures below its glass transition point, PLA is as stable as PET.

Environmental Aspects:

• Feedstock: 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.
• Derived 100% from annually renewable resources like corn.
• PLA resin complies with EN 13432 and ASTM D 6400 Standards for industrial biodegradability and compostability; however, after conversion, said Standards no longer apply.
• There is no post consumer or post industrial market for this resin. However, several recycling methods can be applied to waste PLA. Concern has been voiced that PLA is contaminating the PET bottle recycling infrastructure.
• Competition between human food, industrial lactic acid and PLA production is not to be expected.

PLA & starch-based product

Typical physical properties:

• Only available in one color and opacity due to the natural ingredients changing in color and intensity; known to have black or brown specs in or on the sheet due to said natural ingredients.
• Good impact strength;
• Demonstrates superior ink receptivity over petroleum based products;
• Heat sensitive; therefore, care must be taken when shipping, handling, storage, printing and further processing this material.

Environmental Aspects:

• Feedstock: PLA polymer is a major ingredient; however, through a supply partner, this material incorporates next generation technology of modifying PLA polymer with plant/crop based starches along with natural mineral binders to enhance its impact.
• Made by an EPA Green Power Partner with 100% renewable energy.
• Complies with EN 13432 and ASTM D 6400 Standards for industrial biodegradability and compostability.
• There is no post consumer or post industrial market for this resin. However, in principal, this film is readily recyclable.

Now, check out the comparative below: price is not literally dollar amounts but an internal calculation we have determined to allow you to contextualize the fluctuating prices with different resins.

Bio Resin Show N Tell Comparative
Spec Sheet

Resin $ Comparative Heat Deflection @ 264 PSI Density/Yield

PVC
(clear) 0.050 140-170 F 19.67

HIPS
(opaque) 0.048 170-205 F 26.30

HDPE
(opaque) 0.042 180 F (@66 PSI) 28.85

RPET,
100% PC
(clear) 0.057 150 F 21.00

Cellulous Acetate
(clear) 0.261 125-225 F 23.00

PLA
(clear) 0.049 105 F (@ RH 50%) 22.30

PLA + starch
(opaque) 0.059 127 F 22.10

PHA
(opaque) 0.117 212 F 21.40

Sorry the columns got all jacked, but I think you get the picture.

Alright, this is going to be my last post until after Pack Expo. I wish everyone a fab Halloween weekend and a successful Show, for both exhibitors and attendees.

If any of you, my packaging and sustainability friends, are coming to Pack Expo, PLEASE stop by Dordan’s booth E-6311; I would really love to meet you, my anonymous followers, and I know all the good blues bars in Chicago!

And, isn’t it exciting—I learned how to integrate links into my blog—neato!

Tootles!

Day 28: Nov. 27th, 2009

March 18, 2010

Hello! I am sorry I didn’t post yesterday but guess what: I have been invited to participate in a committee in Canada that looks to find a way to recycle thermoforms! I am positively thrilled that this movement i.e. sustainability, is catching on. Hopefully it is here to stay! In Canada, as is the case in the U.S., thermoforms are not recycled. Canada does have some EPR legislation in place, however, such as the Ontario Stewardship Act, which makes producers (brand owners) and private label suppliers responsible for financing 50% of packaging waste recovery. Because of this legislation, Canada has a much better packaging recovery rate than the U.S., although I am not sure what their percentage of recovery is. Additionally, Canada has a much better infrastructure for industrial composting; apparently, of all the municipalities in Canada, 40% have access to industrial composting facilities. This is good because as PLA makes its introduction into the Canadian market it can actually be composted, which in the U.S. is not the case due to the limited availability of industrial composting facilities.

I suppose I have rambled enough. Shall we resume our recycling narrative?

After my interview with the Environmental Director of Starbucks I felt as though I had a better understanding of how to implement a pilot recycling program in order to provide justification for integrating a new material into an existing materials’ recovery infrastructure i.e. Starbucks cups in corrugated recycling infrastructure; however, I still felt discouraged. As the email from my most recent post implies, clout is necessary for the implementation of a corporately-motivated recycling program. While Dordan is a very respected thermoformer with loyal customers and a tight supply chain, we are not a mega-huge corporation that is able to bring together governmental bigwigs and other movers and shakers in order to facilitate the introduction of a new material into the recycling infrastructure. From what I understand, municipalities decide what can be recycled based on the market and available contracts with collectors, processors, etc. Therefore, it is a top-down sort of thing, and unless we get those at the top interested, it is difficult to introduce a new material into the recycling infrastructure i.e. clamshells in the PET bottle infrastructure. And, Dordan is a quality thermoformer i.e. we run less quantity in order to maintain a higher quality, thereby resulting in less of our packages on the market than some other large-production houses. Perhaps if we were responsible for putting an insane amount of packaging on the market that ends up in a landfill post-consumer we would have a better shot at reclaiming our packages post-consumer because we would have the quantity necessary to find an end market. That is why in previous posts I had emphasized the necessity of collaboration among other thermoformers because of the issue of critical mass: unless there is enough of one kind of material, there is not going to be an end-market for it. Because there are so many PET bottles on the market, the quantity is there, and an end market exists. Therefore, if we all used the same, lets say, resin for consumer goods packaging, then there would be enough of this one type of material to collect and source out to interested parties.

You dig?

Tune in tomorrow to learn more about recycling in America!

Day 18: Nov. 3, 2009

February 23, 2010

I felt as though I had hit a road block; while Robert’s kind words were encouraging, I felt like there was nothing I could do as an individual to create an end market for clamshells post-consumer, either as non-beverage PET flake or mixed rigid plastic flake. Perhaps on the vehicle of collaboration, we would be able to come up with the quantity necessary to create an end market for this homeless material…

I then started the following discussion on greenerpackage.com:

Where does the plastics industry go from here?

As Sean Sabre pointed out in a recent post, there is no recycling market for non-beverage PET flake i.e. the PET used in thermoformed packages (to veiw this discussion, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/recycling/recovery_series_-_topic_2_universal_pet_recyclability_myth).

According to various contacts at Waste Management, this is because those who buy the balled PET beverage containers to recycle into other products do not want PET clams, blisters or components as it compromises the feedstock of the PET bottle flake. In other words, because PET beverage bottles have the same IV, additives and chemical properties, the quantity of that type of material is there, which allows for there to be an end market for it. Contrarily, the PET used in thermoformed packages has different properties depending on the additives used for the specific packaging application i.e. food, medical, consumer goods. Therefore, the quantity of the same type of PET is not available for the creation of an end market for this material. At the same time, however, there is a market for this type of material on the East and West coasts (“non-traditional rigid containers”) because China and other international markets undergoing industrialization buy this material for its stored energy value. In a nut shell: we can’t recycle it if the quantity is not there, which inherently means there is no market for the end life of these types of PET.

Where do we go from here? Do we, as an industry, decide on using one type of material per application i.e. one PET type for food, medical, and consumer goods in order to ensure the quantity of material necessary for the development of an end market for said material? Do we “down-cycle,” via Pyrolysis? Do we switch to PLA or other bio-resins, which require more energy to produce than traditional, fossil-based plastics and require the existence of commercial composting facilities, which are far and few a dozen? As an industry, we must collaborate if we want to reach our shared goals of sustainability.

If interested in the comments to this post, visit http://www.greenerpackage.com/discuss/thermoformed_packaging/where_does_plastic_industry_go_here

Once I reached out to the larger packaging community about my concerns as a packaging professional, I sent the following email to a project manager at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. As the tone of my above conversation implies, I was hoping that collaboration would begin with member companies of the SPC:

Hey,

Just out of curiosity, do you have any relationship with SPI (Society of the Plastic Industry) or other packaging trade organizations? I have begun a dialogue with said organization in regard to the SPI resin identification numbers and the feasibility of recycling non-beverage PET flake i.e. clamshells, blisters and thermoform components. We are trying to figure out a way to recapture our thermoformed packages, which currently are not recycled. We can’t decide if a closed loop system would be best, as is in the case with electronics and batteries, or if working with the existing recycling infrastructure would be more beneficial.

What is the SPC’s stance on the feasibility of recycling non beverage PET flake? Do you think a project like this would be something of interest for the SPC?

Best,

Chandler

Let’s hope the SPC wants to help! Tune in tomorrow for more exciting happenings in the world of sustainable packaging initiatives!

Day 17: Nov. 2, 2009

February 22, 2010

After being copied on an introductory email to the plastics marketing rep of Waste Management, I called him, hoping he would be able to provide some clarification into why clamshells are not recycled in most American communities.

This is how I summarized my conversation with the plastics marketing rep of WM to Robert:

Hey Robert,

I spoke with the plastics marketing rep from Waste Management about the feasibility of finding a market for non-beverage PET flake (the educational director at WM said that the buyers of PET specify that they don’t want PET clams in the PET beverage bales) and he said that the economics don’t support it. In other words, because of the different properties of the different types of PET (RPET, REPTG, APET, etc.), buyers of balled PET only want bottles as they have the same properties and therefore can be recycled into a new product with the same properties i.e. the green plastic cables that are used to strap components together. Also, the quantity is not there, as in the case with PET bottles, so finding a market for PET clams doesn’t seem possible in this economic environment. However, on the east and west coasts, there is a market for “non-traditional” rigid containers insofar as China will buy them to regrind and make new product.

I feel as though I have been shot! I am cooking up another idea, however, that looks to work with a retailer OR a consumer electronic producer.

The plastic rep from WM said I should look into PLA (he said that it can degrade in a landfill?) or waste-to-energy. I know how you feel about “down recycling” but he told me of a company in Madison, Wisconsin, that takes “non traditional” plastics i.e. films, foams, etc. and blends them with coal to produce steam to create electricity. He said that this is cheaper than landfilling and that the energy is being used to power U of W.

What is a plastic thermoformer to do in order to become more sustainable? Now that I have shelved the recycling idea, I don’t know the next best place to look…

If you have any insight, please let me know!

Again, thanks for all your help; I am very glad I met you!

Oh, the bitter taste of defeat.

The plastics marketing rep of WM is the one who is responsible for finding a supplier and buyer of post-consumer plastic material. Therefore, he is the guy who would be able to explain why there is no buyer of non-beverage PET flake (RPET and PET thermoforms). This is what he told me:

There is no buyer of non-beverage PET flake because no one has every invested the time or money necessary to set up this infrastructure, find a buyer, outline the specs, etc. As WM has become more sophisticated, we have been able to recycle a lot more materials than previously recycled; therefore, non-bottle PET is just another material that we are working towards being able to recycle but have not done so successfully yet.

The reason buyers of PET bottle flake do not want PET/RPET thermoforms is because of the possibility of contamination (one PVC clam could contaminate the whole bale), and the different IV between PET bottle grade and PET thermoform grade, which makes for differences in the way things “fly” and “melt” while being repossessed.  

Okay… this seems complicated but not that complicated. I know from previous conversations with Robert that most cities in California accept and recycle plastics 1-7 because of the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which requires local governments to reach a 50% diversion rate. This Act, consequentially, has facilitated the creation of new end markets for these materials post-consumer, which unfortunately, is not the case here.

Do we need to have legislation enacted to provide the motivation to find an end market for mixed rigid plastic containers and packages?

I then received the following email from Robert, which was very much needed in this time of defeat:

Chandler,

Try not to be discouraged.  These things take a long time to sort through and creating markets for materials is challenging to say the least!  There isn’t just an answer out there waiting to be found.  These things need to be teased into existence.  They need people (like you) to keep stoking the fire, prodding things along, and creating pressure.  Keep at it and you’ll come up with something that’ll work.  Maybe it’ll be a few things…at first…small scale.  Then maybe one will take off. 

The thing about recyclers is that they like what they know (even with Starbucks, they’re facing lots of concerns from recyclers accepting their cups with corrugated).  They know PET bottles…so they’re nervous about anything else.  Even if it were exactly the same they’d be nervous…so it’d be a matter of either proving through massive testing that it will work the same, or going for another grade of plastic.  If you created a new grade of plastic material with its own unique specifications, then everybody would know what to expect from the start.  Now…you’d have to have somebody lined up who can use that plastic…  It’s a bit of a paradox really…you can’t collect/bale the plastic if there’s nobody to buy/use it, but nobody is going to buy/use it unless there’s a good, steady supply of the stuff with consistent specifications…

Also, PLA will not degrade in the landfill; it requires a commercial composting facility. 

Have you considered moving away from single-use thermoformed containers and into more durable containers?  Can you make durable containers with the same process?  More and more places are feeling the push both from regulators and the public to go green…some are doing it through switching to PLA, some go to cornstarch, and some are going to reusables.  Eat-in facilities rather than take-out.  Options to fill customer’s dishes with food rather than their own single-use containers.  Or even the concept that’s being used with some food manufacturers (deli meats come to mind) where they sell their food product in a container that can be used again and again at home for leftovers…not for refilling its original product…but reused nonetheless.. 

Well, I’ve rambled on long enough!  Don’t give up!!!  We need people like you in industry!!

Robert

What a guy! Tune in tomorrow for more about recycling in America!

Day 14: Oct. 27, 2009

February 17, 2010

The next day I arrived to the office full of enthusiasm; I had brought my favorite lunch—penne puntanesca and garlic bread—which ensured that no one in the office would want to talk to me for the duration of the afternoon. Silence is golden. 😉

After establishing that NAPCOR was super cool but a little outside our means at this time, I found another industry group dedicated to the use and recycling of plastics: APR stands for the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers. Like NAPCOR, they represent those in the industry that work with post consumer plastics. Their website reads:

Our goal is simple-we want to increase the amount of plastic material that is recycled in North America. We do that by sponsoring education workshops and ‘webinars’ designed to help local and state solid waste officials learn more about the technology of plastics recycling and the markets for material; holding design for recyclability workshops for packaging professionals; working to assist legislators to make decisions that enhance the recycling of plastics; and numerous other market development and technical programs.

RADICAL… I sent a letter of inquiry to the email provided:

Hello,

My name is Chandler Slavin—I am the Sustainability Coordinator at Dordan Manufacturing, which is a Midwestern based, national supplier of custom thermoformed solutions. We source post consumer RPET for manufacturing our packages and are currently investigating recycling options for the end-of-life management of our products. After visiting your web-site I am interested in your association and would like to know the process of applying for membership and also the advantages of being a member. Are any thermoform members in the APR?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to speaking with you soon!

Best,

Chandler Slavin

In a previous post I described a conversation I had with a representative from the SPI (plastics industry trade association); I discussed her desire to help increase the recycling rates of plastic packaging but emphasized her underlining understanding of economics and how such economics did not support such an initiative. During this conversation I suggested that the SPI revisit the resin ID numbers currently prescribed to different polymers used in plastic packaging in order to account for the introduction of PLA into the stream and make recycling of plastics easier. She subsequently indicated that a subcommittee was formed that year to address these concerns and indicated that she would follow up with me about their approach.

To my surprised, that day I received a follow-up email from this contact:

Hi Chandler,

Thanks so much for the call earlier and the great conversation. Sounds like you have your hands full with issues surrounding sustainability, “green-washing”, recycling, bio-resins, additives, resin identification code, Wal-mart Scorecard, and the ultimate goal of reclaiming all your clamshell packaging. These issues are being addressed in our processors council and materials supplier council predominantly.

I have touched base with our sales director in the Midwest. He will follow up with you to give you a better sense of the issues, including the above, that we are involved with on behalf of industry. And, certainly I am available as well.

Hurray; another bread crumb! Processors council and materials supplier council, eh? Time to do more research!

After lunch that day, I got a call from the Midwestern sales director of the SPI. He was really cool, and although he wasn’t totally versed in sustainability issues, he listened to what I had to say and told me he would put me in touch with someone at SPI that would be more of a help to me and my inquiries.

Splendid.

Ironically, later that day, just as I was assembling my things to catch the train back to Chicago, I received the following email:

Dear Plastics Industry Professional,

On September 23, 2009, ASTM International’s D20.95 subcommittee on Recycled Plastics distributed a new draft subcommittee ballot on the resin identification codes to its membership. There are 18 new items being balloted as part of the draft, which will update the original system developed in 1988 by SPI. Members of the D20.95 subcommittee are eligible to vote on the draft until its closing date on October 23, 2009. SPI is strongly encouraging all members of D20.95 to review and vote on this ballot.

Huh…so the SPI is reconsidering the resin ID numbers; that’s great! Although the language of this email is a little ambiguous, at least they are being proactive about these issues. I wonder how I get involved…

Just before I walked out the door, I sent the sales director of the SPI this follow-up email:

Hey, 

 I just wanted to send you a quick email to follow up with our phone conversation today. First, thank you for taking the time to talk with me about my concerns regarding the plastic packaging industry. As per our conversation, I was wondering if there were any contacts at your association who would like to have a dialogue with me about issues pertaining to sustainability and the plastic packaging industry. Aside from the millennial campaign and discussions about adding to the SPI resin identification number family, what else is SPI doing to confront the challenges facing our industry? How is SPI working to save the reputation of the plastic industry? What kind of initiatives is SPI taking to increase the sustainability profile of plastics? Is SPI considering different material recovery technologies or recycling programs?

As per our conversation, I have spent a considerable amount of time researching issues pertaining to plastic and sustainability. If there is anyone I could talk with, or would appreciate talking to me at SPI or one of its sister organizations, please let me know.  

Thanks!

Chandler

Tune in tomorrow for more recycling in America tidbits; good times!

Day 11: Oct. 25, 2009

February 5, 2010

Happy Friday!

I finally figured out how to add tags to my posts, hurray!

After tagging it up, I tried searching one of my tags in the wordpress.com search engine. I started with “clamshells” and what I found was all sorts of crazy stuff. My favorite is “Death to the Clamshell” at: http://envirogy.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/death-to-the-clamshell/. Check out my reply, it’s the last one.

Anyway, while waiting for the educational tour guide’s response, I began researching incineration as a form of energy recovery for plastic packaging. As briefly discussed in my last post, Belgium is at a 96% packaging waste recovery rate because of their sophisticated recycling and incineration infrastructure. That which they can’t recycle, they incinerate. Why don’t we do that here, I wondered.

After several googling sessions, I stumbled upon this “new” technology called Polyflow. I called the number provided on the website…

After a quick Q&A with their rep, I was a little skeptical about this technology because it just sounded too good to be true. Because I didn’t know much about it, I sent Robert the following inquiry:

Hey Robert,

How’s it going? I saw Where the Wild Things Are this past weekend and it was AWSOME! You must see it at your earliest convenience.

Okay, I don’t want to be a nuisance, but have you heard of Polyflow? It is this new technology that breaks the plastic polymer chain down into its chemical components by vapor and then reconstructs the molecules in order to create diesel and fossil fuel and the monomers that make plastic polymers. This technology supposedly takes all types of plastics not currently recycled by single stream and provides the feedstock for the above mentioned products. I spoke with a representative from Polyflow and he says that this system will be economically and environmentally sustainable next year but that they are still in the pilot phase and need additional funding to construct the actual facility that will house this technology.

Any knowledge about this waste management alternative?

Moreover, I have not heard back from the Environmental Director of Starbucks and was wondering if you had unearthed any contacts at your organization that would be able to help me implement my recycling program. I have a dialogue going with SPI, our industry association, but they don’t think the economics will support it.

Hope all is well!

Best,

Chandler

My reference to SPI, the Society of Plastics Industry, was legitimate; I had spoken with one of their reps about my concerns about the environmental and plastic, specifically, recycling, and it went no where.

I first spoke with the Senior Director of State Affairs, who does a lot of petitioning for plastic on our industry’s behalf. She was aware of all the obstacles facing our industry but didn’t seem interested in helping me increase the recycling rates of plastic packaging because, as she explained, it is just not economical: If people can buy virgin resin for cheaper than recycled resin why would we work to create an end-of-life market for mixed rigid plastic packaging?

My one suggestion was to change the SPI resin ID numbers on the back of plastic packages. For instance, the number “1” indicates PET but doesn’t specify the various fillers added to the PET polymer to enhance/alter its properties. Therefore, we manufacture APET, RPET, RPETG, PETG, etc. and they are all labeled as “1” as mandated by the SPI. Because of the different additives in these polymers, the recycling facility won’t accept any thermoforms labeled “1” because they do not know how that specific additive will influence the overall integrity of the bale. Therefore, although it may be the same material as that in PET bottles, they can’t integrate it into the bales to be reprocessed for fear of contamination.

As an aside, PLA is just making its introduction into the market and I don’t know if it has been assigned a resin ID number; therefore, sorters may not be able to distinguish PLA bottles from PET bottles, thereby increasing the chances that the PET stream will be contaminated by PLA. I don’t know what the PLA people have to say about it…I will follow up with some more research in future posts.

Do check out this article; it may provide insight into the ramifications of incorporating into the PET recycling stream: http://www.linkedin.com/news?viewArticle=&articleID=107200234&gid=160429&srchCat=RCNT&articleURL=http%3A%2F%2Fblogpackaging%2Eblogspot%2Ecom%2F2010%2F02%2Fbioplastics-and-oxo-degradables%2Ehtml&urlhash=oSuc.

Anyway, I suggested that SPI be proactive and work with recyclers to develop the best labeling for resins to increase the recyclability of plastic packaging. Although this contact did not know exactly how the SPI was handling the resin ID number situation, she did say that they had a subcommittee devoted to the investigation of these issues and she would follow up with me about this subcommittee…  

Tune in Monday to see Robert’s response to my Polyflow inquiry. Good stuff to come; have a splendid weekend!