If you’ve eaten at the Debot or Dreyfus University Center dining halls, then you may recall drinking out of those clear plastic cups that have “compostable” and “made from corn” written on them. You may also remember just simply throwing these cups in the garbage.
Students’ confusion about the recyclable corn bioplastic cups (or PLA cups, short for polylactic acid) will be put to rest this year, as the university has recently jump-started a recycling campaign for them.
FRESH (Focused Research Effort for Sustainable Habits), a project of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST), is heading up the PLA recycling project. This project will include collecting, rinsing, and storing all discarded corn products from the DUC and Debot dining centers.
Waneta Kratz, graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and FRESH’s Project Manager, began the project after hearing about the idea from Paul Fowler, the Executive Director of WIST.
“Well, maybe if you had a student-run organization under WIST implement a recycling program for this and run the whole advertising campaign and really spread the word…then that would be a great way for students to get involved and have WIST become wider known on campus,” Kratz said.
Right now the project is set up as a demonstration to gauge the environmental sustainability as well as the economic feasibility of such a recycling campaign on campus. UWSP has already been using PLA products for two years, so Kratz claims that FRESH is trying to use products the campus already purchases, just more efficiently.
“So what we’re focusing on is getting the full sustainable potential out of these products that the campus is already paying a lot more money for versus traditional products made of petroleum-based plastics,” Kratz said.
The university currently uses PLA products from the company Eco Products, but will be getting their PLA products from Earth Choice after those supplies run out. Both products will be recycled in the same manner.
FRESH’s current role at UWSP is to collect, rinse and store all PLA products that are collected on campus. The plastics are then sent to WRR Environmental Services, an Eau Claire-based company that takes over the chemical recycling process called hydrolysis.
Hydrolysis involves taking the PLA and exposing it to high heat and pressure until it returns to its original state, lactic acid. This lactic acid can be used for numerous purposes such as making new plastics or even creating an environmentally friendly form of rock salt.
Amy Novack, FRESH’s Marketing Associate, says the project intends to find a way to bring the value of recycled PLA products back to UWSP.
“Right now we’re trying to see if there’s an end-of-life cycle that can actually be brought back to campus,” Novack said.
If the PLA products on campus are recycled to form rock salts, the university both saves money and helps the environment. This is because the rock salts that would be made from the process would not contaminate ground water, as traditional sodium chloride rock salts do.
Kratz believes the university is headed towards a sustainable future if FRESH begins to grow on campus.
“The principle is that we’re using a product that’s made from a renewable resource versus a finite resource,” Kratz said.
Look out for the bins at the DUC and Debot dining centers that are marked “Clear PLA” and remember to recycle any clear PLA cups and to-go boxes used.