Polylactic acid (PLA) has been criticised for not living up to its eco-friendly label once it has been thrown away but NatureWorks is working on a new end of life option for its Ingeo packaging.
Having collaborated with WWF and Danone to change the pack material for German Activia yoghurts from polystyrene to PLA, NatureWorks CEO Marc Verbruggen said the work does not stop there.
“Now we’re continuing our collaboration to create a new option for recovery of the package after use,” said Verbruggen.
At the NatureWorks stand at Interpack in Dusseldorf, lead applications engineer Nicole Whiteman told this publication that its Ingeo PLA can be turned back into its feedstock, lactic acid, by a process of chemical recycling.
Whiteman said this process had already been put into practice at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009 to recover the feedstock for the carpets which were used only for the duration of the event.
First commercial recycling for PLA
Recycling PLA back into lactic acid is still a novelty but it is becoming a commercial reality.
Belgian lactic acid producer Galactic has invested in the chemical recycling of Ingeo – building a 1000 ton lactic acid plant based on PLA feedstock.
NatureWorks claims that because Ingeo can be recreated as a virgin raw material resource it compares well to other plastic recovery systems that typically recycle materials into lower value products.
But any potential benefits can only be realised if the systems are put in place to allow the PLA packaging to be recycled and Whiteman admitted that this requires a certain critical mass of volume to be generated.
She said: “It is likely to start locally and develop organically around big events and in individual communities.”
In the meantime, the options for PLA will be restricted to landfill, clean incineration or industrial composting.
Nevertheless, NatureWorks claims that PLA is still an environmentally-friendly option for brand owners. Quoting an independent life cycle analysis conducted in Germany, the US company said Danone’s switch from polystyrene to PLA for its Activia yoghurts has reduced the carbon footprint of the packaging by 25 per cent and cut fossil resource use by 43 per cent.