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Ingeo ™ Polylactide (PLA) - F.A.Q.

Q: I’m interested in making my product from a bio-degradable plastics.  Can you supply me?

A: Unless the product has to be bio-degradable as part of it’s intended function, it’s unlikely that biodegradability would impart any real value to the product.  For example, promoting packaging as biodegradable, is likely to have the unintended result of increasing litter.  There’s a widespread misconception that if a product is biodegradable, it must be better for the environment than a non bio-degradable one.  That’s generally totally false.  Just being bio-degradable doesn’t mean it’s more sustainable.  There are biodegradable/compostable plastics made entirely from fossil petroleum.


While we’re trying to divert waste from landfill, we’re a long way from yet achieving that goal and meantime it’s important to understand that most modern landfills are designed to be cool, dry airless inert tombs.  You actually don’t want anything to degrade in a landfill, because if the landfill is ultimately going to become a construction site or a sports field, it needs to be stable, with no risk of subsidence which would happen if materials in the landfill degraded.


One of the worst outcomes is when a landfill is moist.  This allows organic waste to biodegrade anaerobically which generates methane gas.  When that methane gas escapes into the atmosphere, it is between 20 and 25 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.


Unfortunately, New Zealand like most of the world has no infrastructure for kerbside collection of compostable kitchen waste and other domestic putrescibles, as it doesn’t have the necessary industrial composting infrastructure.  Sadly this means that around 40% of what goes to landfill, could be converted to compost, or a combination of compost and fuel.


Q: Is PLA suitable for home composting?

A: No, and nor for example is wood.  Home compost doesn’t get hot enough for long enough.  PLA needs a sustained average temperature of 60 deg C or more, and high moisture to break down via a process called hydrolysis, to the point where bacteria and fungi recognize the resulting lactic acid as food.  When those micro-organisms digest the lactic acid, the resulting carbon dioxide, water and biomass represent the end of the composting process.  PLA could take 2-3 years or longer to compost in a home garden system.


Q: If PLA ends up as litter in a natural water way, how quickly will it biodegrade?

A: For PLA to break down quickly, you need two things: moisture and elevated temperature.  In a natural water way, you’ll have only one of the two.  Generally the average temperature day and night will be at a level where biodegradation would take between 2—4 years, maybe longer.


Q: Since most localities in NZ to date, won’t accept PLA for kerbside collection as a recyclable, then surely I’m better making my bottle from PET which is recyclable and therefore more sustainable?

A: When thinking about the larger issue of environmental impact, it’s important to recognize that true environmental advantage starts at the beginning.  Ingeo ™ natural plastics by design, produces just half the global warming emissions of the oil based plastic it replaces—even if they both end up in a landfill.  In that case, it’s better by every measure than the alternative (traditional oil-based plastics).  Furthermore, it provides more options for end-of-life than any other plastics—from mechanical and chemical recycling to incineration and industrial composting—a much needed solution when disposables are heavily contaminated with food waste, like in food service operations.


Q: How does Ingeo ™ PLA fit into a Zero Waste strategy?

A: NatureWorks is working globally to achieve the longer term vision of zero waste.  They strongly support recycling or composting as appropriate and wherever possible.  However, whereas recycling  contents itself primarily with attempts to deal with waste as delivered (after goods have become rubbish), “Zero Waste”  by contrast looks more broadly at a redesign of industrial, commercial and consumer goods to avoid generating waste in the first place.  Ingeo enables a fundamental rethinking of the very starting materials from which goods are made—designing with the end use in mind.

Ingeo™ can be recycled more efficiently and more effectively than conventional plastics without “down-cycling” into lower grade material.  Tests on present day sorting technology used widely by  recyclers, prove that PLA can be identified in the mixed waste plastics stream with around 98% accuracy.

Under proper conditions, it can also be composted, broken down and returned to nature.  That’s an especially good option in commercial food service, where it is already mixed with food and other organic matter.  In fact Ingeo ™ offers more and better alternatives to keep material out of landfill.

The current waste reduction system is evolving.

Of course, we have only just begun to capitalize on this potential.  Continued success depends on sufficient momentum in the marketplace.  NatureWorks and others have worked hard to help craft sensible strategies for handling bioplastics in the waste stream, balancing both global manufacturing partners efforts and local dynamics to establish new and better end –of-life options, but comprehensive recovery of composting systems will not emerge until there is a sufficient amount of material available to process on an efficient scale.


Q: What would it take to make recycling a reality for PLA bottles?

A: It’s important to understand that there are numerous incumbent fossil fuel based plastics in use today [e.g. PET, polyethylene, PVC, polypropylene and polystyrene], which are already at a scale where they could be recycled.  In spite of this, historically only two of these plastics have been actually recovered and recycled at the post consumer level.  Furthermore, although numerous consumer products and packages are made from these two plastics, the actual recycling is occurring only with bottles.  These two plastics are PET (SPI code # 1) typically used to bottle water, soft drinks, juice etc, and high density polyethylene—HDPE (SPI code # 2) typically used to bottle milk, detergents etc.  Even for these 2 categories, bottle recycle rates are still low (e.g. in NZ and the US, around 25%).


One of the fundamental reasons why more of these 2 plastics are not being recycled (and more broadly, why all the other plastic types are not being recycled) is that the underlying economics of recycling are often not attractive.  For those involved in making the plastic, it often appears cheaper to simply make virgin, new plastics from new starting materials—oil or gas.   This is where recycle potential for Ingeo is exciting.  Unlike conventional oil based plastics, Ingeo can be simply and economically , infinitely recycled: an Ingeo bottle can be made into another bottle again and again, whereas oil based competitors are typically “down-cycled”  into products of diminishing value such as decking, land drainage pipe or fibre, and ultimately destined for landfill or incineration.  Ingeo provides the opportunity for economically viable, true closed loop, cradle-to-cradle solutions.


Q: What is NatureWorks doing to change the current waste management system?

A: NatureWorks has been and continues to be actively engaged with stakeholders in terms of making changes in the current waste stream process.

In NZ, the Good Water Company, in situations such as large public events and in home and office delivery and collection situations, are already taking back empties and having them recycled by Astron Plastics.  This makes their Ingeo PLA bottles, the only plastic bottles actually being commercially recycled in NZ.  However this is still very small volume.  They and others launching water in Ingeo bottles are encouraging consumers via their label and point of sale material, to visit their websites and NatureWorks’ website, to learn more about Ingeo PLA and the most responsible ways of disposing of used items.  There is also an embryonic website http://www.greenplastics.org.nz which is intended to act as a public educational, information tool and to assist with the integration of  recycling as and where possible.

In the US, in particular, NatureWorks are a member of the Bioplastics Recycling Consortium which is aimed at bringing the right stakeholders together to take a hard look at the current infrastructure and asking the question, can this be done better (to factor in future innovations) and what needs to happen to make it a reality?

One day we hope to have a recycling infrastructure in plastic that will help realize bioplastics’ current potential of a zero waste system where products, once the hit their end of life, can be brought back to their polymer state and re-made into another and yet another product, repeatedly without any performance downgrade.


Q: How is PLA a better option if it can’t be recycled right now and PET bottles can?

A: Ingeo is 100% renewable, infinitely recyclable and made entirely without oil.  None of that is true for recycled PET (rPET).  What is not well known is that rPET doesn’t truly break the cycle; it only slows it down.  While rPET Unlike Ingeo, which can be reprocessed into new packaging again and again infinitely, PET can only be re-used a limited number of times.  Then it becomes waste.  Most of the minor proportion of PET bottles that are recycled, are generally recycled only ONCE into fibre .

In the western world, 20—30% collection for recycling of PET bottles is about as good as it gets.  Most reclaimed PET today is being down-cycled, used to make filling or carpet or insulation—lower grade applications in which the material is still ultimately heading for the dump or the incinerator.


Q: What are the current disposal options for PLA?

A: Ingeo ™ natural plastic offers more end of life options than any other plastic available in the market today. It can be recycled more efficiently and more effectively than conventional plastics—without down cycling into lower grade material, and under proper conditions, it can also be industrially composted—broken down and returned to nature.  That’s an especially good option in commercial food service, where it is already mixed with food and other organic matter.

Simply put, the  disposal options for the incumbent plastics in the market are limited to three:  Landfill, incineration or mechanical recycling.  Ingeo broadens the playing field with two new options (as well as fitting into these three existing systems).  Ingeo can be industrially composted where those facilities exist, and it can be brought back to its original polymer state and remade time and again into the original or other top quality products, without any performance downgrade (sometimes referred to as “chemical recycling”).


Q: What happens to PLA in a landfill?

A: Ingeo does not break down or biodegrade in a conventional managed landfill.  Neither does anything else.


Q: Can Ingeo™ end up in a landfill and if so, will it decompos there?

A: The reality is that today’s waste reductions systems capture just a small amount of the total plastic flowing into landfills, and options for recycling and composting that material are limited.  Due to these limitations in our recurrent recycling system, some products will end up in a landfill as part of the millions of tones of traditional disposable waste that does every year.

Because a landfill does not offer the climate necessary to compost, it is unlikely that any product will decompose.  That said, if both products made from renewable compostable materials and from oil based materials end up in a landfill, the products made from renewable resources are already better because the offer benefits at the front end of their creation, being based on renewable resources that impact on our environment less than the oil based products.


Q: Does Ingeo™ have anything to offer to reduce the amount of food waste that is currently going to our landfills?

A: Because it is industrially compostable, Ingeo packaging is a fundamental enabler of green waste diversion from landfills.  A portion of food waste going to landfills today results from food spoilage at the retail level (e.g. fresh produce).  Packaging this food in conventional packaging (petroleum based , non compostable), precludes it  being sent to existing compost facilities and usually dictates some less than ideal treatment (e.g. conventional landfill or incineration, depending on the geography.