In this environmentally aware age, the introduction of innovative carbon footprint reducing solutions have become as inevitable as the criticisms that invariably follow from their dissenters. This is definitely true of PLA and bioplastics, which for some ease concerns about the sustainability of bottled water, but for others are nothing more than too good to be true ‘greenwashing’.
According to the founder of Enso Bottles, Teresa Clark, it’s difficult to determine if plastics truly are green plastics. She lists various caveats and limitations of PLA, starting with the conditions that are required for its biodegradability: “From an environmental perspective, there are a number of issues which arise from using oxo-degradables and PLA (plastics made from plant starch) products. Both require an environment with oxygen, heat and moisture in order to begin breaking down. These conditions are not often found in landfills.”
She also claims that the manufacturing of PLA requires the use of valuable food resources such as land and food products, which are not sustainable: “In the bigger picture, we as a human race need to decide which is more important: to feed those in the world who are starving or to use our food resources to make plastics?
“The current way humans grow corn and other agriculture is neither sustainable nor renewable,” she continues. “The use of genetically modified (GM) seeds that are required for the high crop yields needed are unnatural, manmade and are not sustainable or renewable. The use of fertilisers which are derived from fossil fuels is a non-renewable and non-sustainable requirement in order for the high yield crops to grow.
“Ethanol and PLA have created a 400% price increase in 2007, leading to world food riots. In addition, there’s currently a huge problem with forests being clear cut and burnt to create farmland for corn.”
When it comes to oxo-degradable products being recycled after use, Clark also suggests that there are questions regarding the impact of fragmentation on existing PET recycle streams.
As the founder of Enso Bottles, which is described as “an environmental company whose mission is to find feasible solutions to the global plastic pollution problem”, Clark has developed another alternative to PET. Enso joined forces with Bio-tec Environmental to introduce EcoPure to the PET bottle market. She claims that the bottle’s ability to biodegrade in anaerobic and aerobic environments, and be recycled in existing PET recycle streams, makes it stand out from other environmentally friendly packaging solutions.
Biodegradable and recyclable, the bottle solution claims to retain the properties of original PET, as well as being created from a sustainable non-food source. It contains nutrients and other organic compounds, which allows for microbial action and metabolisation of the container. The idea is that the bottle will biodegrade in one to five years leaving behind only humus (soil) and carbon dioxide or methane.
“The development of our bottles marks a turning point from traditional PET bottles and provides a turnkey stable solution over starch based and oxo-degradable products currently on the market,” says Clark.
Ecopure bottles offer the same physical properties as standard PET, such as clarity, strength, heat tolerance, shelf life and barrier protection.
As for PLA, can it be defended against Clark’s comments? PLA manufacturer NatureWorks – which is responsible for introducing Ingeo, a natural plastic obtained from the fermentation of plant sugars, rather than petroleum, to the consumer packaging market – is used to tackling tough questions about its products: “Whenever a new polymer is introduced to the market, it’s often followed by speculation as to what’s true or false about the product; what it can do and what it can’t do.”
The firm says that there’s a global need to find alternative, sustainable raw material sources to oil, substantially reduce CO2 emissions and find additional sustainable methods of dealing with or managing waste.
“Ingeo offers more options than any other plastic and has the fundamental benefits of being made from a renewable material,” says NatureWorks business development manager, Eamonn Tighe. “It’s currently made using plant sugars and in the coming years will be based on biomass.”
He claims that the production of Ingeo doesn’t take away from the food supply as it uses dextrose as the base feedstock in a fermentation process, which converts sugar to lactic acid to create a polymer. The dextrose is made from No.2 yellow dent field corn in the US, and when its plant is at capacity it will apparently use less than 0.5% of the country’s available corn crop.
Tighe cites a study carried out by Wageningen University & Research Centre in June 2008, which attributes the rise in world food prices to various factors, such as a poor wheat and barley harvest, rather than biofuels. He says that with 5% of oilseed going into biodiesel and 4.5% of grain going into ethanol, biofuels have had a marginal effect on the price hike. As for bioplastics, according to Tighe, they are “300-500 times smaller than biofuels, for example, polylactide requires less than 0.04% of global corn supplies”.
Although the corn that’s made to produce dextrose is a mixed stream of non-GMO and GMO corn, NatureWorks states that “during the manufacture of PLA, the multiple-stage processing and high heat used to created the polymer removes all traces of genetic material”.
When it comes to its biodegradable capabilities, Ingeo is compostable in industrial composting facilities where available throughout the world. “Under industrial composting facility conditions the temperature and humidity in typical sites will cause PLA to lose molecular weight and become biodegradable to naturally occurring micro-organisms,” says the company. “If not disposed of properly (placed in a household garden compost system or thrown by the side of a road), Ingeo biopolymer will not reach the typical composting humidity and temperature required and thus will maintain its product integrity in the near term.
“Ingeo offers the most landfill waste diversion options globally of any current commercially available plastic material. It can be physically recycled, industrially composted, incinerated, and chemically converted back to lactic acid through hydrolis or land filled.”
In order to explore how this PLA works in practice, let’s look at the first mineral water brand in Italy to market a bottle made from NatureWorks’ Ingeo. Following rigorous testing, which brought about encouraging results, the chairman and CEO ?of Fonti di Vinadio, the firm behind the Sant’Anna label, launched the product in Italy’s Ipercoop chain. There are also plans in the pipeline for an international launch.
“The use of annually renewable resources, instead of oil, to produce this natural plastic cuts dependency on fossil fuels and, thanks to more sustainable manufacturing processes, helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of the greenhouse effect,” explains Bertone. “Replacing petroleum with a renewable plant based feedstock uses 67% less fossil fuels than traditional plastics.”
He then goes on to compare 50 million bioplastic bottles each weighing 27g with the same quantity of standard PET bottles, which would offer a saving of 13,600 barrels of oil, or the amount of energy needed to supply electricity to 40,000 people for a month.
“In Vinadio (in the Maritime Alps), we have the capacity to produce 50 million bottles in a working week,” he adds. “And Italy currently has to dispose of more than 5 billion bottles per annum!”
The initial phase of the launch will allow the company to collect data relating to the new product’s market impact and consumer reactions to it. Refuse collection and disposal methods for the new plastics will also be put in place, such as recycling and composting, as the firm claims it wants to ensure that it knows where the raw materials end up, as well as where they come from.
**Medina Bailey is editor of Water Innovation magazine.**
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