US Plastic Recycling

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US Recycling Trends

The growing uncertainty surrounding biodegradable, bio-based, or compostable plastics and the growing need for biological recycling infrastructure are two trends impacting the natural impact modifier niche of the recycling market.

Growing uncertainty surrounding biodegradable, bio-based, or compostable plastics

  • A number of articles in the public domain indicate that more and more plastics and recycling experts are questioning the long-term usefulness of biodegradable, bio-based, or compostable plastics. Research studies pointing to the negative impact of these plastics on recycling are emerging as well.
  • Recycling Today, National Geographic, Ensia, Quartz, and Environmental + Energy Leader, which are U.S.-based publications with a global audience, have all released articles that call into question the viability of biodegradable, bio-based, or compostable plastics as a greener alternative to conventional plastics. The articles also cast doubt on whether plastics labeled as biodegradable are truly biodegradable.
  • The article published by Ensia, for example, shows that polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic that is biodegradable, compostable, and recyclable, does not appear to biodegrade in seawater at all. To biodegrade, it needs to be sent to industrial composting facilities. This same article also shows that polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), which are also bioplastics, take a long time to biodegrade, especially in certain regions.
  • The article published by Environment + Energy Leader shows that consumers are getting confused. Most consumers do not know if a plastic product is biodegradable. Most consumers do not know as well if a biodegradable plastic product should be placed in the recycling bin or the food waste bin.
  • A couple of research studies, whose findings have worldwide applicability, indicate that biodegradable plastics, when disposed with conventional plastics, interferes with recycling and lowers the quality of the final recycled product.
  • This trend impacts the natural impact modifier market in the United States to some extent because (a) natural impact modifiers seem to be used primarily to modify biopolymers and (b) impact modifiers are generally added to recycled plastic compounded materials to bring back the durability and toughness that were lost during recycling.
  • Terratek Flex, a starch-based impact modifier, is marketed by its manufacturer, Kansas-based Green Dot Bioplastics, as “an impact modifier for PLA.” PLA, which was previously established as a bioplastic, is “a renewable thermoplastic polyester derived from cornstarch, sugarcane, or tapioca roots.” Terratek Flex has been found to improve the impact strength, flexibility, and compostability of PLA.
  • The HZ-200 biodegradable impact modifiers of Taiwan-based Han Zenith are also developed specifically for use in modifying biopolymers with food contact applications (e.g., PLA).

Growing Need for Biological Recycling Infrastructure

  • Given that biopolymers are increasingly being used in food packaging and food serviceware, biopolymers are interfering with the recycling of conventional plastics, bio-based impact modifiers are emerging, and companies are moving towards sustainability, there are now calls for infrastructure that will support biological recycling.
  • If a well-developed biological recycling infrastructure is in place, odds are high that the demand for natural impact modifiers will grow further. Research studies show that bioplastics, if not segregated, may contaminate conventional plastics in recycling, so the establishment of a biological recycling infrastructure may help address this problem.
  • Aerobic composting and the cascaded combination of anaerobic digestion and aerobic composting are two biological recycling processes that are being talked about in this regard.
  • In aerobic composting, biopolymers are consumed by aerobic bacteria and fungi for energy, and the resulting by-products are carbon diioxide, heat, and water vapor.
  • In the cascaded combination of anaerobic digestion and aerobic composting, biopolymers are consumed by anaerobic bacteria for energy, with the resulting by-product being biogas. Biopolymers that did not disintegrate during anaerobic digestion will then undergo aerobic composting, where the final process will be the conversion of solid digestate to compost.
  • According to Green Dot Bioplastics, maker of natural impact modifier Terratek Flex, industrial composting facilities accept only plastics that are certified to be compostable, so demand for certification services may increase as well.

Research Strategy

Since the trends impacting the natural impact modifier niche of the United States recycling market are not readily available in the public domain, we started by researching specific natural impact modifiers that are on offer in the country and checked the market conditions that are influencing their role in the country’s recycling market. This strategy led us to Green Dot Bioplastics’s Terratek Flex. The information we got is very limited, however, so we supplemented this information with details from organizations or companies outside the United States.