There are 200 million tons of plastic in use today, volumes of which will eventually end up in the waste streams harming sea life, devouring landfill space, and gumming up recyclers’ equipment. While the push to properly recycle plastics is high, so is the trend to re-engineer the products so they are compostable, and overall safer for the environment — especially as municipalities reach for zero waste goals.
“Compostable products help to make sorting easier for consumers, and are designed to break down in professionally managed composting facilities,” said Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). And compostable plastics, made from plants rather than oil, have the power to reduce fossil fuel dependence, foster sustainability, and cut food waste in landfills.
But there’s confusion about which products are truly compostable, and even doubt about what “compostable” means. Compostable plastics, also known as bioplastics, present other challenges too.
Organizations like the one Yepsen leads are working with plastics manufacturers, composters, and other stakeholders to address the issues, starting with clearly defining “compostable,” then helping to design products that work for manufacturers, consumers, and processors.
What is compostable?
For a product — plastic or any other — to be compostable, it must have three features.
“It must disintegrate. It must biodegrade, meaning microorganisms will eat it and process it. And it needs to leave behind no toxic remnants,” said Sarah Martinez, sustainability maven of Eco-Products, one of several companies that sells compostable plastic products. Their clients are from the food industry and their supplier is NatureWorks, which makes corn-based plastic pellets that are converted to the company’s lines — cold beverage cups, clam shells (hinged to-go boxes), sushi containers, cutlery, and cups with polylactic acid (PLA) lining, among others.
Industry standards lack teeth
“Almost anything is biodegradable over very extended time. Compostability says the product is biodegrading in a certain time frame and that what’s left over is healthy,” said Martinez.
There are industry standards to define compostability, but no laws to enforce them. Among resulting challenges is inconsistent decomposition rates from product to product, which can impede commercial composting operations. However this label issue has not gotten by the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). The organization notes that some biodegradable plastics can be recycled with organic wastes, but heeds warning that they can lead to contamination in other plastic recycling streams.
Therefore, “Managers for food scrap collection programs need to ensure they are only using certified compostable products, which have been independently tested and third-party verified,” said Yepsen, forewarning that when potentially problematic biodegradable materials enter the compost stream, they are hard to identify. The BPI maintains a database of all products that it has certified as compostable.
Challenges extending beyond the “gray areas”
Beyond defining the term “compostable,” there are many challenges in creating compostable plastics. The materials and end products are not cheap to produce, there’s much less bio-based plastic than petroleum-derived plastic, and the technology faces some barriers. For instance, PLA can’t handle much heat, limiting its functionality unless product designers invest in a costly secondary process.
Then there is the issue of limited composting infrastructure in the U.S., noted Martinez.
Eco-Product has found a niche in a new market with tough challenges; food service operators willing to invest either because they want to do the right thing or build their brand as an environmentally responsible company. And some cities are banning Styrofoam and rigid, hard polystyrene, creating greater demand.
The company works with sports venues to divert organic waste from landfills, and compostable plastics make it easier to do than traditional food packaging. “Asking fans to scrape out nacho cheese, to put it in the trash, and then put the package in a compost bin is hard. But these plastics go with food in the compost bin, so it’s easy,” Martinez said.
The U.S. Composting Council (USCC), BPI, and the Food Service Packaging Institute are helping processors grow a structure to accommodate more than the food and sports industries. BPI and USCC produced a Quick Check Guide for compostable products, and a Compostable Plastics Toolkit to help solid waste professionals determine if a compostable plastics program is a good fit for them.
Eco-Products is among companies that make compostable products based on ASTM standards and provides samples to determine how long it takes to compost them in recyclers’ systems.
“This helps them understand if they may need to run their process longer or at a higher temperature. Or if they need to process less if it is breaking down fast,” said Martinez. “We have a long way to go before we have a composting infrastructure to divert from landfill.”
But speaking for the company she works for, she added, they will stay with it.
“We feel strongly about the value of (these products’) role in diverting food scraps from landfill.”
Household hazardous waste is one such waste stream which should not end up on a landfill site as it is potentially extremely harmful to the environment and citizens’ health.
With dwindling landfill airspace and higher environmental consciousness, the correct disposal of waste items has become more important than ever in South Africa. With the growing supply of buy-back centres and kerbside collection facilities, South Africa is moving towards separation at source to ultimately reduce pressure on landfill sites and to promote better waste disposal practices.
Household hazardous waste is one waste stream that can potentially have a very negative effect on the environment, not to mention human health. These items include electronic waste, batteries, CFL light bulbs, health care waste which includes syringes and old medicines, paint, pesticides and oil.
There is unfortunately no ‘one-size fits all’ solution to hazardous waste, however, a number of retailers already provide drop-off facilities for batteries, e-waste and light bulbs. Pick n Pay, Spar, Woolworths, Makro, Builders Warehouse and Incredible Connection stores are just some of these retailers. Some municipalities also provide drop-off facilities at garden sites for this purpose, but not all hazardous waste streams are necessarily accepted.
Consumers should also be informed about The Consumer Protection Act (Act 68 of 2008), which is geared towards protecting consumers. The Act recognises that some consumer goods that have reached the end of its lifecycle may be prohibited from being disposed of in common waste collection systems. This act places a responsibility on suppliers and producers of consumer goods to implement take-back schemes at no charge to the consumer.
There are various recyclers that collect certain hazardous waste streams, so that it can be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. Consumers should start to separate their waste at source to contribute to a cleaner environment.
To find out where your nearest waste recycler is, visit www.mywaste.co.za.
For more information, visit the IWMSA website.
South Africa-based Polyolefin Recycling Company (Polyco) released the names of the six successful applicants who will be receiving total investment loans of R7-million over the next six months to fund existing polyolefin recycling operations, in November last year.
The company’s second request for proposals was made in July last year, inviting recycling companies to submit proposals for funding that would be used to grow recycling production volumes and have a direct impact on the sustainable growth of the polyolefin plastics recycling industry.
Polyco CEO Mandy Naudé notes these funds will increase the recycling capacity of plasticsbearing the polymer identification codes 2, 4 and 5 by almost 8 000 t/y or 24 000 t in the three-year cycle. A major benefit for Polyco, is that this capacity growth is directly linked to an increase in recycled tons, as the loans are guaranteed against the applicants’ projected volume growth.
“We received a total of 19 applications for the second round of funding for the 2014 cycle. Of these, we selected the six most suitable applications based on their business plans, financial stability and ability to guarantee waste source to deliver their projected growth,” explains Naudé.
Most of the applications received were for funding that would address bottlenecking or production constraints in recycling plants. “Several applicants were also looking at upgrading their wash plant facilities as this would improve the cleanliness and quality of their products. Investments in new extrusion, granulation and shredding equipment also featured prominently on the applicants’ business plans,” she says.
The successful applicants include Western Cape-based plastic recycling and manufacturing company Myplas, which is tackling the production constraints at its Stikland, Bellville plant. With Polyco’s assistance, the company will be able to unlock additional capacity over the next six months.
Myplas will be upgrading the wash plant and extruders, which will help the company meet a growing demand for their recyclate, which currently far outstrips their ability to supply. “Myplas is excited about the funding. It will help us unblock bottlenecks and increase our efficiencies in our washing and extrusion departments. This will ultimately increase capacity without adding too much overheads,” says Myplas director Johann Conradie.
To meet the growth in customer demand, Gauteng-based plastics recycling company Italian Plastic Technologies need improved shredding and washing facilities, and Polyco’s funding will help achieve this goal.
Unable to expand and grow without a cash injection, Polyco’s funding will allow Gauteng-based plastics recycling company Mountain View Plastics to acquire a modern automated and energy efficient wash plant facility, replacing outdated equipment that is unreliable and costly to maintain. Mountain View Plastics owner Riaan Brenkman comments: “We are truly honoured to be one of the successful applicants to receive a Polyco grant. It will enable us to increase our production output, while supplying our customers more consistently with a high-quality product.”
North West province plastics recycling company Polymark Recycling has been operational for the past 20 years. However, the business is currently at a stage where it needs to upgrade its washing and drying facilities to further business development. Partnering with Polyco will allow Polymark to significantly increase volumes and produce a higher quality product for clients on a plant that promotes sustainability, through the use of considerably less water.
Another Gauteng-based recycler, Emet will use Polyco’s grant to automate and improve operations, as well as introduce more energy efficient equipment. They will be moving their operation next door to their sister company, InWaste Green, in Tembisa, to limit logistics costs and to streamline operations. “Partnering with Polyco will help us cater for the huge demand for processed material, while allowing significant growth in recycling volumes,” says Emet co-owner Miri Moses.
Polyco’s funds will be assisting Eastern Cape-based recycling company Coastal Recycling to rebuild the business, which was severely damaged by a fire last year. The funds will go towards an extruder and granulator, to assist Coastal Recycling to service the East London area, an area that they have serviced for the past 20 years.
Polyco chairperson Jeremy Mackintosh states: “The Polyco board is pleased with the volume and quality of the opportunities that are being presented to Polyco for potential funding support. We can see that by working with the recycling value chain, we can play a role in job creation, enterprise development and in achieving the recycling rate targets as set in the Paper and Packaging Industry Waste Management Plan of South Africa.”
“It is Polyco’s goal is to achieve a recycling rate of 35%, or 239 000 t, recycled out of a total market share of an estimated 680 000 t by 2020. We cannot do it without the help of the collectors and recyclers around the country, who are already making a difference in the communities where they are operational. We extend our sincere congratulations to all the successful applicants and we look forward to seeing each of them grow and prosper, and are privileged to be part of this exciting journey for their businesses,” Naudé concludes.
Source: Engineering News
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