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Biodegradable plastics trend could sabotage beverage companies’ efforts to use more recycled content

Plastic bottles
There’s a huge market for post-consumer PET, but there’s not enough recycled PET to meet demand.

A feature article in the Wall Street Journal on July 1, “Shortage of Recycled Plastic Hits Beverage Companies,” noted how a shortage of recycled material—primarily PET—is hurting efforts of the big food-and-beverage companies to use more recycled content in their bottles.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on two webinars, one sponsored by Jabil Packaging Solutions that featured Jabil, Danimer Scientific and KW Plastics, and another sponsored by SPE, “5 Myths about Material Recycling.”

In the first webinar, Clint Pugh, Sales Manager for KW Plastics, noted that post-consumer recycled (PCR) material for rigid packaging “is an application that’s on fire today,” including multi-layer technology that uses PCR as a “sandwich” in the barrier.

In the SPE-sponsored webinar, Kelvin T. Okamoto, PhD, of Green Bottom Line Inc. commented, “There’s a huge market for post-consumer PET, as some packaging has up to 100% post-consumer PET content. The issue is that while there’s a huge market, there’s not enough recycled PET to meet demand.”

PET’s recycling success comes from the fact that it is so ubiquitous and that it can be recycled numerous times in a way that is FDA compliant, said Okamoto. In 2017, 29.3% of all PET bottles were recycled, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). It’s obvious that more PET is available to meet rPET demand if people would recycle their bottles.

Stephanie Baker, Director of Market Development for KW Plastics, said in Jabil Packaging Solutions’ new video on this topic, that the “largest challenge to getting the raw materials is getting people to recycle to meet demand for PRC.”

I’m proposing that there’s another fly in the ointment of this issue—the continued drive to develop plastics that will completely disappear after initial use. This is better known as “biodegradable” packaging. Stephen Croskrey, CEO of Danimer Scientific, commented during the Jabil webinar Q&A that the “role that biodegradable packaging plays for the future of plastics is “tremendous,” particularly for single-use non-durables that “can compete with fossil plastics” in price and performance. “We believe this is the future of plastics,” he stated.

Post-webinar, I e-mailed a question to Croskrey about this costly disconnect between rPET demand and supply. I then asked him why so many companies are investing so much research time and money to create biodegradable materials when we have in place a large recycling infrastructure and plenty of demand for PCR? Why not use the materials that can be recycled to meet present and future demand?

“Around nine percent of plastic is recycled globally,” Croskrey responded. “We hope that number continues to rise, but in the meantime, more than 90% of plastics are not being recycled. We feel that biodegradable materials can play a significant role in protecting the environment. Our PHA (polyhyddroxyalkanoate) is renewable and can help alleviate dependency on fossil fuel resources. PHA is biodegradable in many environments, including marine, freshwater and soil, so if it is littered, it will break down much faster than petroleum materials.”

Given that biodegradable packaging is actually made to degrade in the environment, I asked Croskrey if it wouldn’t be better to throw the single-use packaging products into the environment to enable them to degrade, since they are not recyclable. Croskey replied, “We believe it makes more sense to put renewable material in the landfill instead of non-renewable materials. Ideally, our materials would be disposed of in home compost bins, where they can quickly break down, or be disposed of with food waste. In the event they are littered, they will break down, unlike fossil fuel-based products.”

So, since bio-degradable packaging isn’t recyclable, it’s best to throw it in the trash headed for the landfill? Honestly, then, what is the point of making something biodegradable when it will most likely never be in an environment where it will do what it’s intended to do? Nothing degrades in a sanitary landfill. And while the composting scheme continues to be promoted as a viable alternative to making plastics disappear from the face of the Earth, it might be appropriate to note that all compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.

The big problem with plastics that are designated “compostable” is that consumers will be hard-pressed to find a composting facility that will take these products because:

  • These items do not compost (fragment) in the amount of time the composter needs to be profitable;
  • they do not break down into the components they are supposed to, such as water, CO2 and soil.

I’ve talked to quite a few composting facility owners over the past few weeks and they all say that larger pieces of plastic remain in the compost even after more than six months, and that’s not acceptable to their customers. Generally, composters are very skeptical of the idea of an industrial material such as plastic, even a so-called bio-plastic, breaking down completely into soil. Thus, most will only take yard and food waste to make their compost products.

Croskrey said that most of the applications that Danimer is working on are packaging structures that are not recyclable at all. “For example, we have partnered with PepsiCo to develop multi-layer snack food packaging that is biodegradable,” he explained. “This will solve a big challenge for the company by taking a product that is not recyclable today, because of its multi-layer structure and contamination with food waste, and giving it an environmentally friendly end-of-life scenario.”

While the composters I spoke with generally take some types of paper waste that has food scraps and debris in it, bio-plastic bags are still an iffy proposition for most of them.

Croskrey added that the difference between PHA and other industrial compostable materials is that it breaks down much easier. “The issue industrial compost facilities have is that they want to ‘turn’ their product faster than current industrial compostable products allow for,” Croskrey said. “Home compostable products (PHA) will break down quickly in industrial compost environments.”

Still, a number of challenges remain with bio-plastic materials and degradability and compostability. PET holds the best hope for recyclability and increasing PRC content in bottles and rigid packaging. The Wall Street Journal article noted that the APR said that big food-and-drink makers will need “four or five times” the current 330 million pounds of PET that ends up in new bottled and food containers currently. “Coca-Cola Co. wants to use 50% recycled plastic by 2030. Nestlé Waters North America is aiming for 50% recycled plastic in its domestic brands by 2025. PepsiCo Inc. aims to use 25% recycled plastic in all of its bottles and packaging by that year. Most of those and other beverage companies use less than 10% recycled plastic in their packaging now.”

Unless the makers of biodegradable plastics are investing in these products with the assumption that bio-plastic packaging will end up in the environment and that is the best end-of-life scenario for them, biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging is pretty much a waste of time and money. And it sends misleading and misguided biodegradability claims to brand owners who have adopted “biodegradable” and “compostable” as the buzz words of the day to give them the appearance of being green, with no thought of recycling as an optimal solution for PET (and PP and HDPE), where recycling infrastructure is established and demand for PCR is high. As one notable plastics engineering professor stated in a presentation on this topic a number of years ago: “Let’s give up the biodegradability myth.”

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