NAPCOR Says PLA Cannot be Recycled with PET

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) on July 24 refuted the premise that polylactic acid (PLA) containers can be successfully mixed in to the existing stream of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers, citing concerns over cost of separation; increased contamination and yield loss; and impact on recycled PET (RPET) quality and processing.

"We don't doubt that PLA can be recycled," said Tom Busard, NAPCOR chair, "but there are unquestionably some big issues yet to overcome. The current reality is that these issues transfer significant system costs and logistics burdens to the PET recyclers, impacting the viability and continued sustainability of their businesses. NAPCOR has spent over 20 years helping to build a successful domestic PET recycling infrastructure and this solution not only jeopardizes the PET system, but is not an effective solution for PLA," he added.

Because PLA and PET containers are not readily distinguishable by sight, some type of autosort technology is necessary. Recent tests conducted by Primo Waters using NatureWorks PLA bottles indicate that near infrared sorting systems may be an effective means of sorting out 93 percent of the PLA from the PET recycling stream. This technology is not currently used by all recyclers and requires significant investment, typically $200,000 or more. Those who invest in these systems expect them to be able to sort at 95 percent or better. Other sorting systems were not part of the recent tests nor were ways to address quality issues such as PLA getting stuck in the dryers during the PET reclamation process.

"The volumes of PLA that can be separated out at this time are relatively low and do not make up the critical mass required for a viable reclamation business model," said Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR. "The reality is that the PLA container becomes a contributor to PET bale yield loss which is already a big concern for PET reclaimers, as is the additional fraction of marketable PET, which will invariably get sorted out along with the PLA. So not only is there an increased cost for sorting and a higher yield loss, but without any practical way to aggregate the sorted material, or markets for it, it's destined for landfill."

Founded in 1987, NAPCOR is the trade association for the PET plastic industry in the United States and Canada.