Technological watch

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

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.”

Publication date: 11/07/2019

Plastics Today


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.