Danny Clark’s idea was simple: If he could make plastic water bottles biodegradable, it would reduce the impact on landfills, curb roadside litter and reduce the amount of plastic garbage that eventually washes into the oceans.
But the Mesa, Ariz., man’s venture has run into opposition from a large and unexpected source: the $400 billion recycling industry, which fears that making plastic bottles biodegradable will reduce the stream of plastic refuse used to make everything from carpet to clothing to new bottles. In addition, the industry fears that changing the makeup of plastic bottles could make it more difficult to recycle them.
With plastic-bottle sales already slowing and only a small amount being recycled, the industry is meeting threats to its profits head-on, actively campaigning against attempts by companies like Clark’s to make bottles biodegradable.
Billions of plastic bottles, which take millions of barrels of oil to produce, appear on supermarket shelves every year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Only about 28% of bottles manufactured in the U.S. end up being recycled, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers said.
The other 72% wind up in landfills or as litter. Environmentalists point to a phenomenon known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a floating island of discarded plastic debris that is twice the size of Texas and held together by swirling ocean currents, as an example of the proliferation of plastic pollution.
Clark, who said he is trying to leave “a legacy that we’ve done something positive in the environment,” was inspired to quit his job as a communications engineer to form a team of microbiologists and polymer chemists to develop his bottle technology three years ago.
“Bottles are a big issue. It’s talked about, and it’s pretty visible,” Clark said.
He launched his start-up, Enso Bottles, in 2008 and says he has come up with a truly biodegradable and recyclable polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic bottle.
PET is used to make a wide range of products, particularly packaging containers for consumer goods, such as water and soda bottles. Traditional plastic PET bottles can take hundreds of years to break into smaller pieces, but those pieces never actually decompose.
Clark’s company produces an additive used in the plastic-manufacturing process and says on its website that independent testing data show bottles start to biodegrade in as little as 250 days in a controlled environment or as long as five years in the elements. In addition, Clark’s data show that the additive doesn’t diminish the quality or effectiveness of the plastic, he says.
Clark said that technologies allowing plastics to biodegrade have been around for several decades but had not been applied to PET bottles.
Recycling-industry experts have concerns about Enso’s biodegradable efforts, saying they are not convinced the technology works, but they also worry that if it does, it will damage their business.
Dennis Sabourin of the National Association for PET Container Resources said the association is not in favor of anything that disrupts that recycled-product stream.
“We want to make sure it does not affect the raw material,” Sabourin said. “Does it affect the service life of products that are being made today with (PET bottles)?”
More than a year ago, the association sent out a news release to all PET manufacturers asking them to refrain from using biodegradable additives. The experts say biodegradable products are more difficult and costly to recycle than PET bottles.
David Cornell of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers said Enso has tried to convince them that the biodegradable additive will not hurt their business, but the recycling industry still fears it poses a threat.
“So far, we haven’t seen that it does degrade or is not hostile to recycling. If it doesn’t degrade, then who wants it? If it does degrade, what does it do to recycling?”
Cornell credits Enso for trying to solve a problem and said that, unlike some other companies, Enso has tried to work with the industry and communicate about product tests.
“They’re working on it. I will give them credit,” Cornell said.
by Angelique Soenarie
The Arizona Republic