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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Biopolymer End of Life - or is it?

River Walk view from the
The biopolymers community converged on the San Antonio River Walk for a two-day conference held at the Westin River Walk. Smithers Rapra orchestrated the excellent conference with perfection. In-depth sessions on pertinent topics were presented by respected industry experts with plenty of networking options infiltrated within the program.

In simplistic terms biopolymers are plant-based derived polymers. Unlike traditional plastics made from oil or natural gas, biopolymers originate from starch, sugarcane and other renewable based resources. Polylactic acid (or PLA). is an example of a commonly used biopolymer.  A key difference with biopolymers versus traditional plastics is their renewable backbone and the additional end of life options, such as recycling, composting, waste to energy, anaerobic digestion and others.

In a foodservice application leading role, PLA emerges as cold beverage cups (draft beer cups at "green festivals"), cutlery and hot cup lids. In its supporting role, PLA is the film protection on paper products to prevent liquid absorption (coffee cups, nacho trays at "green stadiums"). PLA resin-based applications extend well beyond foodservice including electronics, packaging (foam and films), durable (or injection molded based), fibers & non-woven’s and many other end uses. For this article, foodservice use is the focus.

Danielle Marks of Smithers &
John Baldus @ opening reception
Biopolymer end-of-life is intrinsic to Elemental Impact's zero waste initiatives. Compostable packaging is key to incorporating zero waste practices at event venues, festivals, food courts and any operation where food is served in single-use service ware. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport included a groundbreaking provision in their new concessionaire contract requiring food vendors to use compostable consumer-facing packaging and service ware.  For details, see the ZWA Blog post, Atlanta Airport Makes a Bold Sustainable Statement.

Ei attended the pre-conference Anaerobic Digestion Forum moderated by conference chair John Baldus, Sustainable Manufacturing Specialist at the Wisconsin State Energy Office. Presenters and attendees traveled the globe to attend the forum. With an intimate crowd, the sessions remained casual with lively dialogue interspersed among the presentations and closing panel discussion.

A.D. Forum Presenters
Most of the presentations were technical in nature, perfect for the audience. Addressing how biopolymers fare in A.D. systems was the common thread throughout the sessions. Intertwined within graphs, charts and data, it appears biopolymers have a slow conversion rate to methane gas. Yet the high carbon to nitrogen ratio can help to balance feedstocks with low ratios, such as those from dairy operations (i.e. ice cream by-products).

On the final conference day Ei Advisory Council member Brenda Platt, Institute for Local Self-Reliance co-director, moderated an impressive panel, Innovative management strategies for End of Life. In her opening remarks, Brenda provided an impressive recap of prior conference sessions and how they pertain to the biopolymer end of life.

End of Life Panel
Thanks to funding from John Baldus' Wisconsin State Energy Office, the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point campus embarked on a PLA recovery and recycling pilot project at the campus foodservice operations. Dr. Paul Fowler, Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology executive director, presented on the in-process pilot with promising to-date results. Although best known for its compostable nature, it is important to explore extending PLA's life through recovery and recycling programs.

Dick Lilly - business area manager for waste prevention and product stewardship, Seattle Public Utilities Solid Waste Division- was a star in his presentation on the impact Seattle's regulations makes on industry and consumer behavior. The formal session name says it all: Seattle's Single-Use Food Service Packaging Law - How one city's regulations impacted the biopolymers industry.

Dick Lily @ podium
At the basis of Dick's presentation was Seattle's intentions to collect food waste and how the compostable packaging regulation was a major driver for post-consumer food waste collection. Not easy and not complete, Dick gave a long list of "What Made it Work" showcasing the no exceptions stance, a strong local composter, industry engagement and public education as imperative for to-date success. Green washing is an issue highlighting the importance of labels and third party product review as program foundations.  Seattle is on an important journey where the intended destination continues to evolve.

While Seattle opted for regulations to capture food waste for composting, Atlanta used contract provisions. The Atlanta Airport compostable packaging requirements are referenced earlier in the post. Ei founder Holly Elmore and Ei Partner Steve Davies of NatureWorks co-presented in the Biopolymers Role in Zero Waste Programs session.

Holly focused on Ei's foundation, successes and role as a creator and the driving force in initiative development:

Ei determines what could be done that is not being done and gets it done.  Ei brings the possible out of impossible.
Brenda & Steve @ reception
In his presentation, Steve addressed the specific role biopolymers play in zero waste programs along with the documentation developed for the Atlanta Airport contract provision compliance. Holly and Steve's PPT presentation may be downloaded on the Ei Speaking Engagements page.

Richard Gertman, principal at For Sustainability Too, finished the formal presentations with a detailed report on a California sponsored pilot on the recovery of PLA products through optical sorting.  The panel-style program ended with a lively question | answer session.

For a pictorial recap of the conference, receptions and San Antonio River Walk, visit the Ei FB album, 10-12 Biopolymers Conference in San Antonio.

Biopolymer End of Life - or is it?  When composted, biopolymers may continue in a Perpetual Life Cycle System where it decomposes into nutrients for healthy soil and plants that serve as the basis for PLA resin.  

Ei Team tour group - Doug is on left
The ZWA Blog post, Perpetual LIfe Cycle Systems - Simplicity is Key, introduces the PLC system via an overview of an on-farm A.D. tour. Doug Kunneman of NatureWorks and Sustainable Food Court Initiative Chair participated in the tour to understand how A.D. may play a role in front-of-the-house food court food waste.

Fun and educational, the Biopolymers Conference was the perfect energy for effecting the necessary change in our community and corporate culture. Ei is honored to serve as a conference presenter and media partner.


  1. Replies
    1. you are most welcome - it was great to attend the conference and important to share with others.