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.