Although bioplastics are still a very small part of the plastic waste stream, some manufacturers are talking to recyclers about developing recycling processes for their products. NatureWorks, for example, is working with the Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers to help develop mechanical and chemical recycling processes for its Ingeo materials, as well as end-markets for the recycled plastic, Steve Davies, global director of marketing and public affairs, told us.
Non-recycled petroleum-based plastics are a big problem in landfills. If left untreated, they don't biodegrade for a long time. And if not recycled or converted to fuel or electricity, the energy they contain is wasted. Estimates of how much plastic goes into landfills vary depending on who's measuring, but according to the EPA, only 12 percent of US plastics got recycled in 2010.
Although durable bioplastics can usually be recycled, composting is usually the most common option for food serviceware, such as these plate, bowl, lid and cup prototypes made of NatureWorks' Ingeo bioplastic based on BioAmber building blocks. (Source: NatureWorks)
Bioplastics end-of-life solutions are composting or recycling, depending on whether it's single-use or durable. "Composting plastic turns it back into the CO2 and water it started as, which closes the cradle-to-cradle loop but doesn't give an opportunity for re-use," said Davies. "This makes sense in compostable food packaging and food serviceware. Since no one sorts the food waste from the plastic waste for recycling, it all goes to the landfill anyway, where compostable materials can biodegrade. Many food serviceware plastic makers now have a compostable version."
Durable bioplastics aren't compostable, and are harder to recycle than single-use bioplastics, Kent Furst, industry analyst for the Freedonia Group, said in an interview. "First, they are often made durable by adding reinforcing agents and fillers, and these can interfere with the recycling process. Second, sometimes the bioplastic is made durable by being blended with conventional plastics, and it becomes difficult to separate the materials for recycling."
Actually, most higher-performance engineering plastics are tough to recycle, bio-based or not, because of the potential for contamination, which can drastically reduce the recycled resin's desirable properties. "So special handling, such as for scrap, is required for high-performance plastics if they are to be recycled into a material that has properties similar to the original," said Furst. "These guidelines for special handling and processing must be made available to recyclers. Some durable bioplastic vendors are addressing these problems by providing the relevant information to their processor customers."
But, like everything else, recycling begins in the home. Our fast paced and often immoral life-style seems to be endangering the original concept of home. We now rely government, industry, science, and big thinking to solve the simplest problems that use to be second nature in the home.
I agree, Apresher. Given the low participation in recycling, your suggestion of making materials that decompose easily may be a big answer. Now that we're harvesting methane from landfills, decomposable trash going to landfills will become positive.
Thanks for the feedback guys. Actually, only some bioplastics are biodegradable--but purposeful, managed composting and biodegrading in landfills are two different things. The first captures as much CO2 as possible, while the second does not--landfills are the last resort that everyone is trying to avoid because it takes so long for anything to break down there and lets off a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere. Engineering bioplastics are neither, so recycling them is the best option.
Alex' point is a good one about technology, not regulations, driving things. That's certainly the case when it comes to energy recovery of plastic by recycling them into fuels, which will be the subject of my May feature.
Rob, Completely agree with you and it seems like those two criteria will ultimately become requirements for almost all types of recycling options. It's amazing to think about the amount of innovation that will likely occur in this market area over the next few years, given the pace of developments at this point. Good stuff, Ann.
Seems there are two interesting aspects of this story, Ann. for one, it's good to see a manufacturer would work with a recycler to make sure the products they produce have a welcome home at their end of life. It's also good to see these products will break down easily in landfills -- given that you say 88 percent of plastic doesn't get recycled.
The new range of materials made out of recyclables is opening up huge design possibilities. It's interesting to note that, right now, this is really taking just a drop in the bucket out of the waste stream. In 50 years, however, we could see a significant reduction in the waste stream because of serious percentages of recylcing. As well, the whole movement, notable in the auto industry, about designing equipment so that it's easily disassembled, will reach full flower and feed into this. Also of note is the fact that what's happening now seems driven more by technology than regulations, which makes it more organic.
New versions of BASF's Ecovio line are both compostable and designed for either injection molding or thermoforming. These combinations are becoming more common for the single-use bioplastics used in food service and food packaging applications, but are still not widely available.
The 100-percent solar-powered Solar Impulse plane flies on a piloted, cross-country flight this summer over the US as a prelude to the longer, round-the-world flight by its successor aircraft planned for 2015.
GE Aviation expects to chop off about 25 percent of the total 3D printing time of metallic production components for its LEAP Turbofan engine, using in-process inspection. That's pretty amazing, considering how slow additive manufacturing (AM) build times usually are.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This radio show will show what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.