Part 2 of 2 of Fantastic Plastic from Ode Magazine
“We should be celebrating plastic,” says Anthony Zolezzi, co-founder of Greenopolis and the GreenOps Recycling System, an interactive approach to giving “trash” a second life. “It’s how we abuse it and don’t re-use it that’s a problem. [Plastic is] an amazing ingredient that we should look at as a precious material, no different than we look at gold.”
Greenopolis, a rewards-based recycling program launched in 2009, aims to halt the abuse and disposal of plastic. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the company has so far installed 335 kiosks in the U.S., mostly at Whole Foods Markets with a few at college campuses and in stadiums like the Staples Center in L.A. and Sun Life Stadium in Miami.
Every Greenopolis kiosk has a touch screen, like an ATM, and a scanner that can identify any plastic with a barcode. Once the plastic is dropped into the appropriate bin, the kiosk prints a receipt with reward points redeemable at any of Greenopolis’ 10,000 retail partners, ranging from restaurants and rental car agencies to hotels and clothing stores.
The points can also be saved in an online user account on Greenopolis’ website, which serves as a hub for information about recycling and plastic. A virtual ticker keeps a running tab on how many bottles have been recycled through Greenopolis (latest count: 4,911,249), and new educational content is posted three times a day to Greenopolis’ YouTube channel. Users can earn points for commenting on educational content or participating in virtual games on Greenopolis’ Facebook page, which has 30,000 fans.
Zolezzi says the company plans to install an additional 3,000 kiosks by the first quarter of 2011 and double that by the end of 2011. This spring, PepsiCo launched a new recycling initiative, the Dream Machine, which aims to put recycling kiosks in public venues like gas stations, parks and stadiums across the country. Greenopolis will operate all Dream Machines.
“Re-use is nothing new,” Zolezzi says, pointing to the rationing of flour, tin and aluminum during World War II as a model for the way a society can work together to conserve. “We just have a generational gap in frivolous use of plastics and derivatives without thinking about the consequences.”
But no matter how thorough our efforts, recycling alone won’t change the fact that the techniques by which we source and recycle plastics remain problematic. Nearly all virgin plastic is made from petroleum or natural gas, both of which are non-renewable resources. What’s more, even if we collected all virgin plastic after consumer use, only a small percent would be made into new plastic. The rest, as is the case with most recycled plastic today, would be turned into carpets, shirts, shopping bags or Patagonia fleeces that, after a couple years, would end up in the landfill.
Plastic therefore needs to be re-invented as well as recycled.
Next: Bioplastic to the rescue
NatureWorks, founded in 2003, has created a “bioplastic” sourced entirely from plant sugar. The plastic, named Ingeo, can be safely composted in 60 days, so food waste from restaurants and fast food chains (which is typically contaminated with non-compostable cups, forks and spoons) can go to composters rather than landfills. Better yet, if separated properly, Ingeo can be melted down to its virgin form and reprocessed with close to 100 percent efficiency.
Some of the end products the company makes include T-shirts and sweaters, a personal care item like baby wipes, snack packaging and home electronics like laptops and photocopiers. “Anything that can be made out of plastic, people are interested in making out of bioplastic,” says Steve Davies, a plastics engineer by trade and NatureWorks’ director of marketing.
Bioplastic has come under fire for placing pressure on crops like corn and sugarcane. NatureWorks ferments sugars from corn to make lactic acid, the stuff you feel burning in your thighs when you hop on a treadmill. The lactic acid is then polymerized and turned into plastic. So it’s no coincidence that NatureWorks is headquartered in Blair, Nebraska, the heart of corn country. But Davies insists that the amount of corn the company uses puts little to no stress on the corn market. More important, the company is developing technologies and supply streams to make plastic entirely from agricultural waste resins.
Another criticism of bioplastic is that it contaminates traditional recycling streams. Again, Davies disagrees. Ingeo is marked as a number 7 plastic, and if recyclers invest in infrared equipment, it can easily be detected and sorted out, he says. The real problem is that recycling facilities haven’t had an economic incentive to separate out anything but the 1s and 2s. “It’s very cost effective and cheap to turn this plastic back into lactic acid,” Davies argues, offering market opportunities for other firms.
Belgium-based Galactic, the leading global supplier of lactic acid and lactates, has begun to collect post-consumer Ingeo plastic, which it depolymerizes back into raw lactic acid. BioCor, a start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, has even started collecting post-consumer Ingeo and is selling it back to NatureWorks.
This activity will only increase as more firms get into the bioplastic market. Metabolix, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is developing a bioplastic made by microbial fermentation. After use, Metabolix plastic biodegrades in fresh and marine water, soil and the compost pile. At his Algalita lab in southern California, Charles Moore is running tests to determine exactly how long it takes marine-degradable plastics to degrade.
Craig Criddle, a professor at Stanford Engineering, is pursuing an infinitely recyclable bioplastic synthesized from bacteria-fermented methane. The California Green Chemistry Initiative, a government program run by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), supports his and Moore’s work. The program identifies potential problems with plastics (like toxic additives), establishes regulations and encourages businesses to choose and design smarter alternatives. “Looking for safer alternatives, they often find better alternatives that have better functions as well,” says Bruce Labelle, chief scientist at the DTSC lab. “It can be a win-win.”
The Coca-Cola Company is pursuing its own brand of green chemistry. In 2009, Coca-Cola released PlantBottle, a plastic bottle made from up to 30 percent plant-based material, yet chemically indistinguishable from traditional PET bottles, meaning it can be recycled without contaminating waste streams. “We’re focused on 100 percent of our bottles with up to 30 percent plant-based material by 2020,” says Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging at Coca-Cola. “The technology is proven and we are marching very hard toward that destination while we work on the technology to get us to 100 percent [plant-based bottles].” Coca-Cola is rolling out PlantBottle with select brands in Denmark, Canada and the U.S., and hopes to partner with other beverage companies in the coming years.
With the right combination of recycling, re-use and innovation, plastic could soon become a renewable resource.
Andrew Tolve intends to reduce, reuse and recycle even more than he did before.