The Plastic May Be Clear, But the Consensus Is Not

By JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News staff

Sometimes, the more you dig, the murkier things become.

Last month, ecoRI News published a story that attempted to make sense of the myriad bioplastics on the market.

In the article, ecoRI News took a granular look at the complex life cycle of these plastics and examined how marketing messages with respect to biodegradability and compostability don’t always match up with reality, especially in Rhode Island, where there exists no commercial composting facility to break down many of these new biodegradable and compostable plastics.

The article also examined the life cycle of plant-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which comprises Dasani’s new PlantBottle. The Coca-Cola Co., Dasani’s parent company, markets the bottle as made from up to 30 percent plants — as opposed to traditional fossil fuels — and 100 percent recyclable.

In a statement that caught many consumers and industry insiders by surprise, Sarah Kite, director of recycling services at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC), said Rhode Island’s post-consumer PET buyers considered plant-based PET a contaminant.

“Until they (our buyers) tell us that plant-based plastics are OK, we have to say that they are not recyclable in Rhode Island," she said. The bottles, Kite said, should therefore go into the trash until the buyers accepted them as recyclable.

Immediately following publication of the article, the Coca-Cola Co. contacted ecoRI News to register its disappointment that its PlantBottle had been characterized as a contaminant by Kite.

ecoRI News decided to do a little more digging to get to the bottom of this quandry. How could it be that one person’s PlantBottle is another's contaminant?

In a follow-up conversation with Jeff Meyers, Coca-Cola's sustainable packaging manager, ecoRI News learned that when Dasani’s plant-based PET bottles were first introduced to the market in 2009, there was much confusion among reclaimers with respect to the recyclability of these bottles.

“There were usually two things that confused people,” Meyers said. “The first was PLA (compostable plastic), which is not compatible with the existing recycling infrastructure. If someone hears that PLA doesn't work they jump to the conclusion that all plastic made from plants doesn't work.”

The other point of confusion was bio-degradable additives, which are not in the Dasani bottle. Meyers, himself, a chemical engineer, worked on developing the PlantBottle, and, in speaking with ecoRI News, he reiterated that plant-based PET is chemically identical to traditional PET made from fossil fuel. “We just changed the building blocks,” he said.

Through an intensive education and outreach campaign involving Meyers himself and the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR), which works closely with reclaimers, the confusion surrounding PlantBottle has been cleared up. Recyclers and remanufacturers use the recycled plant-based PET as they would conventional PET, with no complaints, according to Meyers.

Except, it seems for Rhode Island.

Following the conversation with Meyers, ecoRI News decided to recheck Kite’s assertion that RIRRC's users consider plant-based PET a contaminant, and contacted Waste Management, the primary broker of post-consumer PET for RIRRC. In an e-mail reply to ecoRI News, Donna Sedler, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, said the company doesn't consider plant-based PET bottles a contaminant “at this time.”

Case closed, right?

ecoRI News went back to Kite with this bit of information. When presented with Waste Management’s statement about plant-based PET, Kite clarified that “Waste Management (Recycle America) is the broker of our recyclables. They are not the end user of the plastics.”

“The broker’s job is not to determine the specifications of a material,” Kite wrote in an e-mail. “Their job is to move the material to market. If (Waste Management) knows of other customers that will accept all types of PET, (including plant-based) then it’s up to them to negotiate the best price for Rhode Island and move our materials to that customer.”

Kite said she contacted end users who relayed their concern about contamination from plant-based PET.

Asked for the contact information for an end user, Kite demurred in an e-mail exchange. “I’m reluctant to put our customer in the middle. ... I would suggest to Coca-Cola that they do more outreach to the manufacturers themselves. They know who the major players are.”

All this top-level back and forth over the integrity of a plastic water bottle reveals the complexity of innovating for a system that is slow to embrace change either because of rigorous market dictates or because of ignorance.