Monday, March 26, 2012

Plastic Recycling Conference 2012 - The Fight (Literally) over Biodegradability

I was at the Plastics Recycling Conference in Atlanta last week and will spend a good portion of this week discussing what I saw and learned there.

While I was a little be skeptical before the conference of what I would find, I was almost immediately delighted with the proceedings. It was a fairly large conference (1400 attendees from 32 countries) and it was well organized in a way that I've not seen before: each session had 3 speakers, all of whom were on stage the entire 1.5 hours. Each spoke for about 20 minutes and then after all three were done, questions were taken from the audience (via cards) and discussed by all the speakers as appropriate. This format thus led to sometimes lively discussions and in one case, well..., let me detail that one a little more.

One of the late morning concurrent sessions on Tuesday was about oxo-biodegradable materials. The first speakers [1] was CEO of a company that makes an additive that upon exposure to UV light and oxygen leads to degradation of the plastic. The purpose of this is to solve the litter problem. No matter how good we are at trying to prevent it, plastic litter will occur to some degree [2]. If the plastic will degrade, the litter will no longer be visible, which certainly is a desirable outcome. As a CEO, he was constantly stating that he was not the technical guy in the company, but that the product was wonderful and had no impact on recyclability and that it must be good because Walmart and a hundred-and-some-odd-dozen countries are buying it and... Sorry, I can't write anymore about what was said, as at that point my notes have a very large B.S. and I appeared to have stopped writing. Clearly, he was not a technical guy.

The next speaker [3] spent a great deal of time and effort going into the meticulous details behind a biodegradability protocol that his institute was working on. It was fabulous. He really understands all the nuances of accelerated aging. While I was disappointed that he had no results as of yet, this was totally understandable as obtaining these results is a slow process if they are to be achieved correctly. (Bad results are easy to get but worthless to all parties concerned.)

The third speaker spent his time talking about the use of compostable food bag liners, which even allow for the composting of adhering food scraps. It was a nice, informative talk but a complete sideshow to the action that followed in the discussion.

This is when the kid gloves came off and the tension quickly built between the first and second speakers. The second speaker immediately went on the attack, stating that while the first speaker may be correct about his additive, the real challenge is when his additive is mixed into a waste stream with other similar additives: will there be a synergistic effect? No one knows and yet that is a chance that is being forced on recyclers.

Just as the session was winding up, the moderator gave the second speaker a chance to freely speak about degradability additives, to which he clearly, succinctly stated that they do nothing for litter. "Litter is an immediate problem", meaning that as soon as a bag is let loose, people see it as litter and really don't know or care that it will disappear in 40 days, as it is 100% visible right now. As he was saying this, the first speaker, 20 feet across the stage was glaring at him. At this point, everyone was on pins-and-needles not sure if fisticuffs was going to break out, if chairs were going to be tossed or a formal duel with pistols was going to be proposed. The first speaker had one point interrupted the second speaker to ask for a chance to respond, a response that was more of his standard canned speech of "with so many customers, how can we be wrong".

Fortunately for the moderator, time was up and that was the end of the session. Time for lunch. I found the second speaker and passed on my thoughts, telling him that I don't think I would have showed as much restraint as he had.

I would never have expected such excitement at a conference on recycling plastics, but if they are all this good, I can't wait until next year.

[1] Tim Murtaugh of Symphony Environmental, if you have to know.
[2] Even if it is the tsunami litter swept out to see from Japan that Doug Loep is warning will soon reach the US coastline.
[3] Dave Cornell, of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers

1 comment:

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