Plastic recycling: just because it’s plant-based (PLA plastic), is it better?

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A plastic container carries a ‘recyclable’ symbol but there’s nowhere to recycle it – who would have thought recycling could be this complex? This dilemma is part of the reason why it’s important to familiarise yourself with your waste services and the stakeholders within your supply chains.

PLA plastics are plant-derived plastics that are now used extensively in food packaging as ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ or ‘recyclable’ alternatives to typical polymers. While technically these materials may be any of the above, and thus they can be advertised as such, the specialised recycling services required are not always available to consumers.

Consequently, PLA plastics, which may state they are recyclable, often do not have a recovery pathway.

Why can’t we just chuck it all in the containers recycling bin?

The issue with disposing PLA plastic in the regular plastics recycling stream is that it’s indistinguishable from PET plastic during flotation and density separations. The PLA plastics are combined with PET plastics (think: Coke bottles), reducing the quality and resale value of the re-pelletised PET polymer.

Edge Environment recently conducted a contamination audit of a Sydney office building and found high concentrations of PLA plastic cups in the standard co-mingled recycling service. An investigation confirmed that the processing facility that receives waste from this site is unable to recycle PLA plastics, a fact that had not been communicated to the bin collection provider, building management and, therefore, the tenants.

How can people and businesses become more effective recyclers?

Situations such as this are common and illustrate the lack of transparency in Australia’s waste services, as well as the need for industry regulation and ratings tools. Subscription to industry rating tools for waste services, such as the updated NABERS Waste tool and also the proposed GECA Waste Services Standard, strive for outcomes-based reporting, which in turn drives verified environmental results in the procurement, management and servicing of commercial property waste.

The confusion around materials eligible for recycling is an ongoing issue, as eligibility in the area one person works may be very different to the area in which another works, and can differ between home and business. The best places for information are:

  • Local council websites
  • Planet Ark: Recycling Near You
  • Businesses’ waste service providers
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