What is PLA?
PLA stands for polylactic acid and it is the material used to make a type of bio-based plastic available on the market today. PLA is produced using sugars derived from plants such as corn, potatoes, tapioca, sugarcane, sugar beets, soy protein or wheat. Research is underway across the globe to derive those sugars from non-food sources of biomass such as corn stover, yard waste or forest trimmings. The sugar is broken down through a fermentation process using microorganisms to form lactic acid. The lactic acid is then linked together through a process of polymerization, resulting in the polylactic acid plastic. But this is only the beginning of its life. Many useful products can be created using polylactic acid including woven shirts, diapers, printers, tea bags, mulch film and even components of dialysis machines. Disposable food and beverage containers made from PLA have an increasing presence in the market today. PLA has become a popular material because it is made from renewable resources, such as corn or sugarcane, instead of petroleum, like traditional plastics. PLA plastics are compostable under industrial composting conditions. Plastics derived from PLA are considered to be a more sustainable option than petroleum plastics for these reasons. Plastics made from PLA are not, however, a perfect replacement for petroleum based plastics. PLA doesn’t share the same physical properties as all petroleum based plastics, such as heat tolerance and plasticity. Also, since PLA’s basic composition is different, it cannot be placed into the existing plastics recycling stream without using additional resources of manpower or mechanical sorting equipment because it would cause imbalances in the recycling process.
PLA and UWSP
UWSP uses a variety of disposable food containers made of PLA which are ordered by Dining Services from a company called ECOProducts. The raw PLA used to make the containers comes from a different company called NatureWorks, LLC. Although ECOProducts has two lines of products that they create, one made out of recycled materials and the other out of PLA, UWSP only purchase the PLA products. This means that all the cold cups, hot cups, take-out containers, paper food containers and straws that are used on campus are 100% compostable. At the moment, UWSP and indeed much of the Midwest do not currently have a managed composting operation in place for sustainable disposal of these products. Instead of being composted, the PLA products have been going into the waste stream and ending up in landfills. So the potential benefits toward sustainability that these products possess are not being fully utilized. For this reason, the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology (WIST) is starting a recycling program for these products. This is where The FRESH Project enters the picture!
To recycle the PLA products on campus, place them in the special bins provided at the DUC food court, Homegrown Café, and the DeBot Dining Centers. Here is what to look for:
The FRESH Project
The FRESH Project is a student-run research project, funded by WIST and the Wisconsin Energy Office. The aim is to run a PLA recycling program on campus during the 2011/2012 school year. Look for PLA collection bins in the Dreyfus University Center (DUC) food court, outside the Homegrown Café on the DUC concourse and in the DeBot Dining Center. An important thing to note about the recycling process of these PLA products is that only some of them can be recycled at this point. Only the clear products are presently chemically broken down. So, we will only be collecting the cold cups and cold food containers .The PLA will be collected and taken to the recycling center on campus where it will be rinsed, sorted and stored. Once we have collected enough PLA waste, it will be shipped to WRR Environmental Services Co. Inc., in Eau Claire, WI, where it will be broken back down into lactic acid. They will then send this recycled material back to NatureWorks LLC.
Besides simply setting up a recycling program on campus, The FRESH Project will also be conducting research throughout the process by collecting data on collection and contamination. Our mission is to see if this special recycling program is not only sustainable, but an economically feasible option for the campus. More broadly it will provide important information about the widespread adoption of bio-based plastics throughout the United States. UWSP supports the use of environmentally friendly products such as these, but we can only do so if we can afford it. Because PLA products are more expensive than traditional plastic containers the benefit to the environment must be greater than the economic cost. The amount of PLA products that are ending up in the landfill will also be determined by this simple calculation: PLA Ordered - PLA Recycled = PLA in Landfill
The FRESH Project hopes that over the course of the year the rate of proper disposal of these products increases as we make efforts to educate our students and faculty on campus.
Recycling PLA on Campus
Remember, not ALL the to-go food containers you see on campus can be recycled. Only the CLEAR PLASTICS can be taken. While we use many other products on campus, they do not all break down the same way.