Tag Archives: environment

The Top 10 and Not a 1?




This diagram represents the top ten producers of plastic packaging. The vast majority of the plastic applications that are produced by these brands become waste. All the film packaging, pouches, diapers, detergents, hygiene products, wrappers, coffee bags, food containers and much more, that’s produced by these 10 companies accounts for an astonishing amount of the plastic waste that is certainly not being reused or recycled in any meaningful way.

We hear a lot that environmental pollution is a consumer problem. We get told how to prepare our waste for recycling. “Put this here and put that there. No! Not that, this. Well, sometimes that, but probably not. Maybe, use water and wash it out. No wait – water..? Take it here or actually take it someplace over there.  Otherwise, it may need to be shipped somewhere..?”  And when you stop to take a look at the results of all this effort, you’re left wondering, are you kidding me, is all this even environmental? Enough already!

News Flash: In the last 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in how we manage waste and the infrastructures we utilize. They’re very impressive works of innovation and they’re regulated for environmental efficiency at the highest level. In fact, today 85% of all U.S. municipal solid waste ends-up in an environment that converts biogas into clean energy, generating a valuable alternative resource for our growing energy needs. Some of these companies are actually using the same means to power their own manufacturing facilities! Yet, accountability for this aspect in packaging design is scarce. How is this being overlooked?

We’re now dealing with decades of plastic waste that’s been left in our environment; we see the devastating repercussions and the projected damage it will cause. Plastic production has surged to 311 million tons and is expected to double in 20 years. Currently, plastic packaging accounts for nearly a third of the total volume of plastics used, and unlikely to be recycled. By ignoring the single most common disposal method of this material, valuable energy is being wasted and continues to compound the environmental problem.

If these 10 companies took one simple step to ensure packaging design for disposal compliance, the impact would provide tremendous and measurable value, for company and community. Getting plastics out of our environment and into the grid falls on the shoulders of producers not consumers.

Ensuring energy recovery should be paramount in packaging design, it’s the only opportunity to recoup value and it should be the top consideration in packaging sustainability initiatives. It’s the missing link to creating circularity; it’s recycling at its highest peak. With an immediate 85% capture rate at the fingertips of corporate sustainability leaders, what are you waiting for?

Pack Expo’s Trashiest Girl Speaks Out!

Houston, we might be the  problem!

 Pack Expo – Las Vegas, my first major event within the “plastic industry” and it was a very eye-opening experience for me.

I went to this convention in a dress that was made completely out of plastic “trash.” I was very nervous to be in public dressed in what could be construed as a controversial outfit; however, the second I walked into the door I could tell that most people were going to be receptive and accepting of my “statement.”

I thoroughly enjoyed being at Pack Expo. I had a lot of fun walking through the aisles and meeting so many great people. I was often stopped and asked by many of the attendees to just take a picture with me and then was asked why I was wearing this particular outfit. Unfortunately, most people didn’t quite understand what was behind the sentiment of  my plastic dress and they thought I was there to endorse recycling. My colleagues and I were able to take the opportunity to share with so many people that even though we think recycling is great, it’s not enough and that there are more options for being truly sustainable.

Something that I think the plastic industry would be more cognizant of, is recycling and sustainability. However, there weren’t even recycle bins at Pack Expo (well, there was actually only one recycle bin that I saw. There were, however, bins for garbage at practically every corner) This is definitely indicative of the sustainability problem we face. Most of the plastic discarded doesn’t even get recycled, it ends up in landfills. The entire Pack Expo is a reflection of the plastic packaging industry and yet they didn’t even offer a sustainable option for discarding plastic refuse from the show.  Not to mention that on the final day when booths were being torn down, workers were just throwing away huge piles and handfuls of plastics into the garbage.

If we, the “experts” in plastic packaging, don’t come up with solutions for sustainability the problem is only going to get worse. For being an event encompassing the plastic packaging industry, I was very surprised to learn that people in this industry aren’t more concerned with the end of life of their plastic packaging.  I thought for sure that the people in this business would realize that recycling just isn’t enough.

I wore a dress made out of plastic bags and packaging to make a point that represented the many items on my dress would not be recycled; but would ultimately end up in a landfill. What happens to all that plastic when it’s not recycled and gets discarded? Right now, nothing happens; it will stay buried in a landfill for thousands of years. Doesn’t it make sense to think that more should be done?

Unless you’re doing something with your packaging to make it more sustainable; you’re part of the problem!




The Truth Shall Set You Free

We produce well over 200 billion pounds of plastic each year.  This is a well-documented environmental issue of grim proportions; plastic is literally trashing our planet.  Brands, manufactures and consumers are fully aware and the search for solutions is in full swing.  Fortunately, our awareness has spurred incredible technological advances to address this problem, some better than others.

As a brand, being environmentally accountable is a trait that serves well in the marketplace.  It’s a hallmark that projects the greater good.  But in a Cass Sunstein meets George Orwell world,  where the FTC, EPA, FDA, IRS, (insert acronym),  are watching your every move and new terms such as Extended Producer Responsibility emerge, it can be paralyzing to make that technological decision.  You want to choose something that is justifiable, reliable and proven.

In a small microcosm of the larger issue, we catch a glimpse of the efforts and problems we face.  In a recent article Coffee Makers wrestling with recyclability of single-serve pods,  TerraCycle is boasting about recovering 25 million coffee capsules over the last couple years, but has essentially found no use for them.  Are we to understand that companies are paying TerraCycle to collect and store these things in some warehouse?  Add to this, according to the article, 41 million adults drink a coffee made in a single-cup brewer every day.  So in a two year effort, TerraCycle could not recover a single days’ worth of coffee capsules?  Clearly, the Customary Disposal Method for this application is the garbage, in other words, the Landfill.   Let’s not jump on a bandwagon for the sake of waiving a green flag, the overall effect is useless.

Here’s one, California is now floating a new Bill to put the burden on companies to find solutions for plastic waste in our waterways.  The same State that bans the claim of biodegradable materials (and has sued companies legitimately making those claims), is now requiring brands and manufacturers to seek out and implement biodegradable solutions?? Are they expecting producers to put their necks on the line in search for innovation? Good luck taking that bait!

Unfortunately, the principle concern of environmental safety is being contaminated with agendas that have not proven capable of long term sustainability.  There is a tendency to gravitate towards colorful Green language instead of clear, black and white solutions.  Today, we have the capability to address plastic pollution on an incredible scale, without contamination.  Unfortunately, too many producers are paralyzed with uncertainty or are turning to the least point of resistance.

A perfect example is the less than bold stand that one of the largest producers of bottled water took, “Lightweighting”.  Holy crap! That’s it?  Reduce your costs and provide a rigid bag for a bottle?  C’mon…the “commitment to minimizing the environmental impact” is lackluster., considering 50 billion plastic water bottles end up in U.S. landfills each year.

Here’s my humble opinion.  Within a generation, we have witnessed the birth of the plastic EVERYTHING.  We began filling-up our Landfills with EVERYTHING and noticed NOTHING was reprocessing back into nature.   The raging river of plastic is pouring onto our planet and we place the majority of this material in Landfills.   There is a biodegradation process in Landfills that is beaming with potential and we have the proven ability to produce, capture and harness one of the most inexpensive and cleanest energy resources and fundamentally address our plastic pollution problem.

Recycling is an industry I support, but the numbers don’t lie and the goal is not to prop-up one particular industry, it’s to clean our planet.  We need to stop kidding ourselves and start dealing with reality.  I also understand Sourcing from renewable resources, but harvesting Corn for plastic in order to claim “Compostable” is absolutely wrong.  I’ve lived in many places over the years and I have yet to find my local Industrial Composting facility.  But if I did, I would respectfully not bring them my plastic waste.  Let’s face it, you can claim it, but it’s not going there and where it is going, this technology does nothing.   For those adding metal into the equation, this technology is borderline criminal.  That probably explains the parasitic tendencies of this technology in underdeveloped countries.  Both of these technologies have an adverse effect on our Food Source/Supply, which alone is highly irresponsible.

When making the decision on how to be accountable for your Plastic Footprint, know what is out there, get the full story and get the proof that it performs as claimed.  If you stand in the light of truth, you will be safe.  70% is greater than 30%, 2+2=4, what’s right is right.

Oceanic gyres

Destination: Garbage Island

I’ve heard stories over the years about “islands”, out in the middle of the oceans, which are created completely from discarded plastic. It’s hard to believe that such a place would exist. I recently watched the documentary, “Garbage Island”, by Vice. This documentary proved there is no such island, at least not in the terms of plastic patches so thick you could walk on them.

What is actually out there; 1,000 miles from any landmass, is much worse than a simple growing patch of used up plastic. There are vortexes, holding in tons of broken down plastic particles from the plastic that doesn’t sink (LDPE, HDPE). This plastic floats along the currents of the ocean, breaking down year after year from the sun and the salt water, ultimately finding its home in and around the slower currents of the gyres.

It would be relatively easy to scoop up all the large items of trash and clean up our oceans, but the small, usually microscopic, size pieces of plastic particles would be nearly impossible to clean up.  All marine life has to live in an environment that is ultimately becoming toxic. They ingest the plastic particles and, in turn, we ingest the seafood.

How do we limit the amount of plastic that is ending up in our oceans? This isn’t a problem only confined to the United States, this is a worldwide problem. It’s not enough to just know where our plastic products are ending up, i.e. being recycled, landfill, etc. We should also be more aware of what types of plastics are being used and how their end of life is affecting our environment.

ENSO Plastics Restore is leading edge technology that gives plastic material biodegradability in landfills; and ENSO’s Renew resin will make plastic marine degradable. This is a solution that can solve the plastic pollution problem in our oceans. A solution that needs to addressed; because once the plastic is out of our hands, it’s up to nature to take care of the rest.





Biodegradable Plastic – Compostable Not So Fast Says Stanford Daily

There was a recent press release issued by Media Juice titled “Biodegradable Plastic – Compostable Not So Fast Says Stanford Daily.”  The press release reviews a study performed by students at Stanford University regarding compostable utensils and their performance in “real world” environments.

The study points out that what the company markets as a compostable PLA material and the “Compostable” certifications that organizations (such as BPI Biodegradable Products Institute) issue on the material is not necessary a reflection of what happens in real world environments.

This brings up a great point and discussion topic and one ENSO has pushed for the past five years and that is that we are mistaken in our approach to promoting, marketing or pushing materials that will go away in any real world environment in a specific timeframe.    Even the much touted and pushed material of PLA is not a rapidly compostable as is promoted in marketing materials.  Sure, we can create test environments which are highly controlled and manipulated that will maximize biodegradation and provide results that look and sound great, but the variety that nature brings in the real world can mean a huge difference in the amount of time needed for a product to biodegrade, from months to even years. This does not change the fact of whether a product is biodegradable, just simply that to dictate exactly when it will biodegrade is a bit misleading to the consumer.

So yes – labs can show specific time frames for biodegradation, but what happens when that same material ends up in real world environments?  9 times out of 10, it doesn’t perform as promised.  So, what does this mean?  How can a material tested and certified by industry organizations such as BPI not perform when introduced into real world natural environments?  After all legislators are passing laws based on such certifications.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.






Innovative Approach has 5 Times the Success of Recycling

The other day I was throwing out the trash and it caught my attention how much plastic waste is not accepted in my recycle bin. Wrappers, blister packs, bags, saran wrap, plastic containers and more all destined for the landfill. Comparing that to my recycle where all I have is beverage bottles, aluminum cans and a cardboard box, the magnitude of the waste problem hit me over the head. With overall plastics recycling in the US averaging near 7%, it is clear that something must be done to address the remaining 93%. And although reports show some increase in recycle rates, these increases are not keeping up with the massive increase in global plastic consumption. Perhaps it is time to focus on the reality of plastic waste – over 30 million tons of it that went into US landfills in 2009. To paint the picture for you, by the time you read this paragraph, the room you are sitting in would have filled up several times over with landfilled plastic. Every year we landfill over 96 million cubic yards of plastic!!

There is a silver lining to this, with today’s landfill management we are converting our landfilled waste to inexpensive clean energy.  In fact, today 35% of all waste is placed in landfills that utilize this methane to energy (methane is produced during biodegradation in a landfill). If this plastic waste had  been biodegradable, it would have converted about 10 million tons to clean energy and freed up 70 million cubic yards of landfill space!!

With today’s biodegradable technology, we have the ability to convert 35% of all our plastic waste to an environmental value, with no need for additional infrastructure or legislative programs. That is 5 times the success of recycling!!

After 30 years of recycling and only reaching a 7% recycle rate, I wonder how long it will take to reach the same or higher 35% rate of landfills collecting and converting landfill gasses into clean energy?  Maybe its time we look at technologies that focus on solving the bigger part of the problem while also supporting the smaller aspect?

So as I finish, I can’t help but wonder, if in the future the power used to run my laptop will come from biodegradable plastics in the landfill…..

Click here to download our informational PDF on Landfills.

Clean Energy

Methane Gasses: Least Expensive Form of Clean Energy?

Did you know that using the methane gasses generated from landfill sites are the least expensive form of clean energy we currently have available to us?  It’s true, our waste when biodegraded anaerobically produce methane which is a flammable gas.  Landfills are packed very tight and therefore do not allow oxygen to be used in the biodegradation process.  This results in anaerobic microbes having an environment which allows them to thrive and break down the organic matter within the landfill cell.  This also happens in Anaerobic Digesters where the by-product of the anaerobic biodegradation process produces the biogas Methane (CH4).

It is true that Methane gas is a potent greenhouse gas.  It is also flammable and dangerous and as such it needs to be collected and converted into gases that are less impacting on the environment and/or to create clean energy.  In the past many landfills would flare, or burn the methane to convert it to CO2 but over the years more and more landfills and businesses are recognizing that methane from landfills and anaerobic digestion can be used to create clean energy.

We are a long way from being a zero waste society and until we are we will have to deal with our waste.  That waste if placed into anaerobic environments can generate methane which has a value that can offset our need for other fossil fuels.

Due to the stringent level of regulations the United States has the highest percentage of landfills with LFG (Landfill Gas) collection systems relative to any other country practicing landfilling.  Nearly 60% of the worldwide capture of methane occurs in the U.S. even though the U.S. only generates 24% of the worldwide methane.  From the perspective of the largest sources of methane emissions, landfills are the third largest.  I provide these numbers to show that globally collecting and converting methane from landfills can provide the incentive to lower GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions.   It should be noted that progress in lowering GHG emissions is best achieved by a concerted, integrated approach that employs all available technologies and methods, including reuse, recycling, composting, waste-to-energy, and landfilling with capture of LFG.

So here’s the question:  What if all plastics were both recyclable and biodegradable, and would biodegrade in landfill environments?

If we do the math on the 31 billion plastic water bottles sent to a landfill instead of were recycled in 2006.  It would result in enough energy to power a 100w light bulb for over 900,000 hours.

To calculate how much energy can be created from a plastic bottle enhanced with the ENSO additive take the weight of the bottle multiply it by % carbon, multiply by 1.33 (molecular weight of CH4 16 / molecular weight of carbon 12 – this converts the carbon to methane), then multiply by 22.4 (L/g – ideal gas law).

(bottle wt * bottle carbon %) * (methane mass 16 / carbon mass 12) * 22.4 L/g = vol. methane per bottle

(19.2 gram * 62.5%) * (1.33) * 22.4 = vol. of methane per bottle

(12) * (1.33) * 22.4 = 357.50 L * (1 m3/100 L) = .3575 m3

Once we know the volume of methane per bottle we need to convert that into how much energy can be created per volume of methane. The Thermal energy content of methane is approximately 26.73 – 32.7 kj/m3 therefore about (26.73 + 32.7) / 2 = 29.715 kJ/m3

.3575 m3 * 29.715 kJ/m3 = 10.623 kJ

1kJ/second = 1kW and considering a 100W light bulb:

10.623 kJ = 10.623 kW seconds * (1000 W/1 kW) * (1 hr/3600 s) = 2.95 W hr

To light a 100W light bulb for 1 hour would require 33.88 bottles:

100 W * (1/2.95 W hr) = 33.88

31 billion bottles = 31,000,000,000 bottles * (1 hr/33.88 bottles) = 914,759 hrs

Bacteria Strain

Bacteria Strain that Biodegrades Polyethylene

Most people understand standard plastics to be resistant to the biodegradation process, but did you know that research from back in 2005 isolated a microbial strain called Brevibacillus borstelensis that is capable of utilizing polyethylene as the sole carbon and energy source?

So what does all that mean and how did they do this?

Soil taken from a polyolefin waste disposal site was used to isolate the bacteria strain that had adapted to its environment and energy source to be able to secrete the enzymes needed to utilize the carbon within the polyethylene chemical chain.  From the research there were a few BIG discoveries with one being that Brevibacillus borstelensis was able to use the carbon found in polyethylene as the sole source of energy.  This is important because we typically find that microbes will develop where there are easily accessible sources of energy.  This is the reason traditional plastics take so long to biodegrade, the carbon is too difficult to utilize by microbes resulting in plastics lasting for hundreds of years in the environment.  We now know of a microbe that is indifferent in using the carbon from polyethylene plastic or from other sources.

This research has opened the door to better understanding the adaptive nature of those microscopic creatures we share the planet with.  Although we can’t see them, they outnumber the human inhabitants by a factor of many trillions of them to each one of us.  They have also had millions of years more time on the earth than us humans have, and are instrumental in the cleaning process of creating a healthy viable planet.  There is a lot we can and will continue to learn about the tiniest creatures we call microbes.

To read the full paper: Biodegradation of polyethylene by the thermophilic bacterium Brevibacillus borstelensis


ENSO Plastics Evaluated at World Renown Academia GTRI

landfill biodegradation

Breaking Down Plastics: New Standard Specification May Facilitate Use of Additives that Trigger Biodegradation of Oil-Based Plastics in Landfills

Georgia Tech Research News,



Despite efforts to encourage the recycling of plastic water bottles, milk jugs and similar containers, a majority of the plastic packaging produced each year in the United States ends up in landfills, where it can take thousands of years to degrade. To address that problem with traditional polyethylene, polypropylene, Styrofoam and PET products, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are working with the Plastics Environmental Council (PEC) to expand the use of chemical additives that cause such items to biodegrade in landfills.
Analyzing plastics

GTRI researchers Lisa Detter Hoskin and Erin Prowett (seated) use a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer system to test biodegradable polyethylene bags and polystyrene cups to confirm the presence of biodegradable additives. (Click image for high-resolution version. Photo: Gary Meek)

Added during production of the plastic packaging, the compounds encourage anaerobic landfill bacteria and fungi to break down the plastic materials and convert them to biogas methane, carbon dioxide and biogenic carbon – also known as humus. These additives – simple organic substances that build on the known structures of materials that induce polymer biodegradation – don’t affect the performance of the plastics, introduce heavy metals or other toxic chemicals, or prevent the plastics from being recycled in current channels.

If widely used, these additives could help reduce the volume of plastic waste in landfills and permit much of the hydrocarbon resource tied up in the plastic to be captured as methane, which can be burned for heating or to generate electricity.

“Research done so far using standard test methods suggests that the treated plastics could biodegrade completely within five to ten years, depending on landfill conditions,” said Lisa Detter Hoskin, a principal research scientist in the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and co-chair of the PEC’s technical advisory committee. “However, legislators, regulatory agencies and consumers need more assurance that these containers will perform as expected in actual landfills. We need to provide more information to help the public make informed buying decisions.”

To provide this information, Hoskin and other Georgia Tech researchers are working with the Atlanta-based PEC to develop a set of standards that would ensure accuracy and consistency in the determination and communication of the plastic containers’ biodegradation performance.

“We are working to develop a new standard specification for anaerobically biodegradable conventional plastics,” Hoskin said. “This certification is intended to establish the requirements for accurate labeling of materials and products made from oil-derived plastics as anaerobically biodegradable in municipal landfill facilities. The specification, along with a certifying mark, will allow consumers, government agencies and recyclers to know that the item carrying it is both anaerobically biodegradable and recyclable.”

The standard specification will provide detailed requirements and test performance criteria for products identified as anaerobically biodegradable, and will include rates for anaerobic biodegradation in typical U.S. landfills. These rates will be based on biodegradation test data and results from research being undertaken by Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University.
Analyzing plastics

Researchers Lisa Detter Hoskin (standing, left), Walton Collins (standing, right) and Gautam Patel examine the structure of biodegradable polystyrene cups using a high-resolution optical inspection system. (Click image for high-resolution version. Photo: Gary Meek)

With support from the PEC and its member companies, Hoskin has directed testing efforts that show mechanistically how the additives work, and are showing that the degraded plastic leaves behind no toxic materials. With that part of the project largely completed, she now leads the development of the standard specification and certifying mark, and plans to organize a network of accredited laboratories that will test products made with the biodegradable additives to certify that they do degrade within a specific period of time.

Full development and adoption of the new standard specification by ASTM International will likely take between 18 months and two years, Hoskin said. The project will involve research being done using landfill simulations at North Carolina State University and other independent laboratories.

Using information from laboratory-scale anaerobic reactors operated under a range of temperatures, moisture levels and solids contents, researchers will compare the time required to break down known anaerobically biodegradable materials – such as newsprint, office waste and food waste – against the time required to degrade those same wastes in real landfills. That information will be used to project the biodegradation rate for the treated plastics in a range of real landfills, which vary considerably in moisture and other factors.

Though they are recyclable, plastics made from hydrocarbons had not been biodegradable until development of microbe-triggering additives. Bioplastics such as those made from corn may be composted, while a small percentage of specialized plastic products – known as oxobiodegradables – are designed to degrade when exposed to oxygen and ultraviolet light. But the bulk of the plastic resins used in bottles and other containers are made from materials that will last virtually forever in landfills, noted Charles Lancelot, executive director of the PEC.

Many communities operate recycling programs for plastics and other materials such as newsprint, aluminum and steel cans or cardboard. But because the cost of collecting, sorting, cleaning and reprocessing most plastics can be more than the cost of producing new products, such programs struggle financially unless they are subsidized, he noted.
Plastic bottles

Despite efforts to encourage recycling, a majority of the plastic packaging produced each year in the United States ends up in landfills. Expanding the use of chemical additives that encourage the biodegradation of this packaging could help reduce its impact on landfills. (Click image for high-resolution version. Photo: John Toon)

“If you can make a product like a bread tray and use it over and over again, that is the most efficient alternative,” said Lancelot, who developed successful business-to-business recycling programs while working at Rubbermaid. “But if you can’t reuse it and it’s not cost-effective to recycle it, where is the product going to go? The fact is that despite the best wishes of everybody involved, 75 to 85 percent of the plastics used today end up in landfills. We are addressing that unfortunate reality.”

Although biodegradation occurs to varying extents in all U.S. landfills receiving waste today, many of today’s landfills are optimized for biodegradation, he noted. Moist conditions and recirculation of leachate liquids accelerate the activity of anaerobic bacteria, which will attack plastic materials containing the additives. Such landfills typically do a better job of collecting and beneficially using the methane biogas, Lancelot said.

“When the anaerobic microorganisms that thrive in landfills contact these treated plastics, they begin to colonize on the surface of the plastic and adapt to the base resin,” he explained. “Until the bugs come in contact with the plastic, the additives remain inert and do not affect the properties of the plastic container. We are not changing the overall plastics production process, and the base plastic is the same.”

The compounds, which have been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), are typically added to the plastic resin in small amounts, between one-half and one percent by weight.

Expanding the use of anaerobically biodegradable additives must be done in such a way that doesn’t detract from recycling programs, said Matthew Realff, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering and co-chair of the PEC’s technical advisory committee.

“From a lifecycle perspective, it is important to quantify the benefit of recycling over landfill disposal with methane recovery to energy, and to continue to make the case that whenever possible, recycling is significantly better than disposal, even if you have methane production and capture from biodegradation,” he said.

While the biodegradation of plastic materials may solve one problem, the production of methane and carbon dioxide – both atmospheric warming gases – could worsen global climate change, he noted.

“Landfill capture of methane is not 100 percent efficient, nor does it begin immediately after the material is put into the landfill,” Realff said. “Therefore, there will be emissions from biodegradation that will reach the atmosphere. It is important to be aware of how accelerating the production of methane would change overall emissions.”

A 45-year veteran of the U.S. plastics industry, Lancelot says he is pleased to be working with Georgia Tech on a potential solution to the problem of plastics in landfills. The research will help close a gap in plastics “end-of-life” options where reuse or recycling are not feasible.

“Nobody had commercially biodegraded petroleum-based commodity plastics like polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene before these additives became available,” he noted. “This is ground-breaking work that is based on a solid scientific platform that defines biodegradability as a practical and useful end result.”

Research News & Publications Office
Georgia Institute of Technology
75 Fifth Street, N.W., Suite 314
Atlanta, Georgia 30308 USA

Media Relations Contacts: Kirk Englehardt (404-407-7280)(kirk.englehardt@gtri.gatech.edu) or John Toon (404-894-6986)(jtoon@gatech.edu).

The Impacts of Plant-based Plastics

Photo by Shira Golding

Corn-based and other plant-derived plastics are all the rage these days, and are marketed as the ideal way to treat our plastic addiction. They’re made from a renewable resource, lessening our dependency on fossil fuels, and they are compostable, reducing the amount of plastic waste lingering in our landfills—what could be bad about that?

Not so fast. The issue is a bit more complex than it seems on the surface, and it turns out that these plastics still have big environmental impacts, just in different ways.

Cool, My Cutlery is Compostable!

But wait. It won’t break down in my home compost pile, or in a landfill, you say? Plant-based, or Polylactic Acid Polyesters (PLA), plastics require the near-perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility: consistent high temperatures, ideal humidity, etc. in order to break down. Very few consumers have access to these facilities; even fewer are lucky enough to have curbside composting pickup. This means that the majority of the plastics will end up in the landfill, where contrary to popular belief, they do not biodegrade.

Recycling Rewind

Well, then I can recycle it right? Wrong. PLAs are not recyclable and contaminate the recycling stream. Removing non-recyclables from the batch is a costly and time-consuming affair, and many of these costs are passed on to the consumer. Even worse, some facilities don’t bother to sort contaminated bins, and the whole load ends up in the landfill.

Oil Free, Guilt Free

But, they’re made from a renewable resource. At least I can feel good about that! Or can you? One of the strongest sellingpoints for many consumers lies in the fact that PLAs are plant-based rather than petroleum-based, and that’s a valid argument. But, consider how the majority of crops sourced to manufacture the PLA polymer are grown. Crops like corn, beets, potatoes, and other starchy plants are grown on a huge scale, are doused with tons of petro-chemicals, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maximize production.

Processing the plant material to make the polymer also requires energy from fossil fuels. So, unless crops grown organically, the processing plant is using clean energy from the sun or wind, the process to make PLA relies pretty heavily on petroleum.

Wanted: Farmland For Food Production

But that’s not all. Perhaps the biggest, and most controversial, impact of growing plastics is the fact that it is taking up perfectly good farmland to grow food that is not being used…for food. Scientists predict that we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the global food shortage, so growing plants that could be used to feed people but using them to make packaging and fuel (that’s another argument altogether) doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution.

As we continue to lose arable lands to commercial development to support the burgeoning population, cut down the rainforest to grow corn and graze cattle, it makes less and less sense to use farmland to grow plastic. Some might argue that much of our cropland is used to cultivate livestock feed to grow animals that only a small percentage of the population eats, so it’s already an inefficient system, and this is a valid point. But, it doesn’t mean that we should add insult to injury and use food as a source for plastic, it only means that the whole system needs an overhaul.

Biodegradable Plastics to the Rescue!

ENSO Bottles

So what’s an eco-conscious consumer to do? It’s not very practical (or even possible at this point) to ditch plastic altogether, so what’s the alternative?

Enter biodegradable plastics. Products made with ENSO’s leading edge technology render any conventional plastic biodegradable in a landfill setting, where most plastic ends up.

ENSO’s biodegradable bottles and other products offer a sustainable solution to the growing plastic waste problem. They disappear under natural conditions, thanks to the work of microbes that quickly and completely break them down, leaving behind only organic compounds and new soil. They’re also recyclable. To move away from dependency on petroleum to source plastic, ENSO is always working with an eye toward the future, to consider other sources like algae, and improve existing technology.

At the end of the day, the take home lesson is this: Know what you are buying, and understand the impacts of the full process of how it was made, and what happens after it’s disposed of, because green products aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.