Upcycling of post-consumer PLA waste: a gateway to ‘circular bio-economy’

Posted On: July 22, 2020

Upcycling of post-consumer PLA waste: a gateway to ‘circular bio-economy’

July 20, 2020
Lloyd Fuller

Designed for performance and durability, synthetic plastics have become indispensable as materials of every-day use. However, their indiscriminate disposal has led to an acute problem of plastic pollution

In order to solve this issue, the European Union not only tries to implement a circular system to reuse, repair and recycle plastics (circular economy) but it also aims to produce plastics of renewable resources (bio-based plastics). Poly-lactic acid (PLA) is one of the most promising and frequently used polyesters from this category. Due to its flexible and versatile applications ranging from disposable cutlery and degradable sutures to rigid packaging and extrusion coatings, the global production capacity of PLA is expected to grow to 826,000 tons by 2023. However, the dominant market for PLA is food packaging.

PLA is a bio-based alternative to fossil-based plastic but its production is very raw material- and energy-intensive (2.39kg corn cobs, 50kg water and 54MJ of fossil energy are required to produce 1kg of PLA). With rising population, cropland for these renewable raw materials as feedstock for PLA production can compete with that used for food production. Though PLA is a potential high-volume raw material, there is no infrastructure for separately collecting and recycling PLA. Therefore, it often ends up in other conventional waste streams, thereby contaminating them and disturbing the state-of-the-art municipal recycling strategies.

Researchers at Fraunhofer ICT along with Fraunhofer LBF have developed a strategy to chemically recycle post-consumer PLA waste into a lactate ester (ethyl lactate) which finds its commercial applications in chemical synthesis, magnetic tape coatings, plastic, metal, wood and food industry. The process represents an economically and environmentally sustainable recycling strategy, capable of nearly completely depolymerizing the PLA substrate along with a high yield of ethyl lactate (80%) in a relatively short period of time (< 20 min) and under mild reaction conditions (< 70°C, ambient pressure). An outstanding feature of this system is the use of a conventional and commercialized eco-friendly, organic catalyst. Another special feature of this process is the use of an eco-friendly, low-boiling solvent, capable of selectively dissolving the PLA fraction from a mixed plastic waste stream, consisting mainly of PET and PP. This flexible process scheme is capable of handling virgin PLA of different grades (Total Corbion LX175 and NatureWorks PLA 6032 D) as well as post-consumer PLA cups. The process has been scaled up in 2019 from a laboratory scale to a technical scale (15 L) and its robustness was demonstrated by recycling post-consumer waste PLA cups, without any effect on the yield of the lactate ester.

The production of both PET and PLA is expected to increase by 2021, with the percentage increase of PLA being higher than that of PET. Due to its application, the estimated maximum contamination of PLA in waste PET streams could vary between 0.8% to 8% by 2021. In such a scenario, innovative methods for removal of PLA would be required in order to assure high-quality recycled PET. In addition, the huge demand for PLA on the consumer market, coupled with high feedstock and energy demands for its production, is a major concern for the manufacturers of PLA. In this situation, implementing the aforementioned strategy will not only completely utilize the valuable poly-hydroxy acid even after the end of its conventional life cycle but will also add value to the supply chain.

With this strategy, adaptation of a circular economy approach for the synthesis of virgin-PLA would lead to approximately 50% energy savings as compared to the conventional PLA production processes, starting from corn-cobs as feedstock. Thus, further farmland (5.7m2/kg PLA) will be available to produce plants for human consumption or for livestock thereby contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, this is still under investigation at Fraunhofer UMSICHT.

Thus, in a nutshell, the developed concept envisages to solve the problems at the confluence of chemical recycling of PLA and sustainable production of lactate esters (potential alternative to conventional petrochemical solvents) by strictly abiding to the fundamentals of green chemistry. Thereby it sets up the foundation for a ‘circular bio-economy’ and benefits both ‘circular economy’ of conventional plastics and different elements across the entire societal value chain.

The rescheduled Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2020 will take place at Cologne Messe, Germany, on Monday 9 November and Tuesday 10 November. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email


Cruise Ships Comply With Air Pollution Regulations By Dumping It Into The Sea Instead

Posted On: October 07, 2019

There is only so much one person can do when it comes to battling global warming. A new report indicates that was done by the Independent shows that the global shipping industry has spent billions of dollars to make sure that they can keep making as much money as possible. All while polluting the oceans due to a loophole in legislation. New environmental legislation is designed to curb air pollution from these shops. However, "bulk carriers, container ships, and oil tankers, which have the biggest engines and have historically been the worst polluters" have decided to comply with this law by simply dumping their garbage into the sea instead.

In this report, apparently many in the shipping industry have spent billions by installing "open-loop scrubbers," which extract sulfur from exhaust fumes of ships and just re-route it from the air to be dumped right into the ocean. And this is not just fir freighters and oil tankers, but cruise ships as well. "About half of the world's roughly 500 cruise ships have or will soon have scrubbers installed," according to Bryan Comer, a senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

These scrubbers will not only pollute the water, but put marine life and coral reefs at risk too. And this can even extend to humans, because it can increase the risk of some cancers. And of course it affects all of us too, since these dumps will also increase carbon dioxide emissions, which the planet is already at odds with. 

This loophole is a disgusting abuse of power and money. Instead of taking a stand against climate change and making a difference, many in this industry are only working to make it worse. And all just to stay rich, for the most part. 

At The Complete Package, we strive to make the world a cleaner place by selling eco-friendly products to many in the food service industry throughout the United States. If you would like to learn more about all we do, please send your questions to


Ocean Cleanup Device Is Being Redesigned

Posted On: August 19, 2019

An ocean cleanup device was recently designed with the sole intent to clean up the ocean's plastic problem. This device is a huge floating barrier that collects plastic and was initially placed in the Pacific Ocean, with its target being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Great Pacific Gyre contains an estimated two trillion pieces of plastic that is spread out over an area that is twice the size of Texas. The cleanup strategy is to concentrate the plastic into the device so it can be removed more easily by boat pickups.

It was placed in the water last year, but had middling results until eventually fracturing. The meant it needed to be removed from the water and redesigned for a sturdier frame. On top of the fracturing, it also moved at the wrong speeds to capture plastics. Sometimes it was too slow and sometimes it was too fast. By taking it out of the water, the team can also target that issue for its next deployment.

To fix the speed, the team plans on placing a parachute on it that would slow it down and allow it to consistently catch plastics. During testing, it was consistently catching the plastics and concentrated it by a factor of around 10,000, according Boyan Slat, founder of the nonprofit. "If we could do the to the whole patch, we'd take the plastic distribution down from twice the size of Texas, to one-tenth the size of the city of Houston," Slat wrote in a recent blog post. 

Out of all the plastic ever made, only around 9% has been properly recycled and one estimate has as much as 150 million metric tons of plastic may have ended up in the ocean. This is a huge problem that needs to be dealt with and soon. Even if we magically start recycling better and stopped using less plastic, the plastic in the ocean would still exist.

Slat is optimistic about the future and this technology, despite recent setbacks. The Ocean Cleanup team plans to keep moving forward as quickly as it can to get to a system that works. The ultimate goal of this project is to get a fleet of these devices into the ocean. But for now, it is just the one that needs to be perfected.

If you find this interesting, you can check out the article here. Also, please check out their website for more information about the Ocean Cleanup project.


Microplastics Found in the Arctic

Posted On: August 15, 2019

According to the New York Post, scientists say they have found an abundance of microplastics in the Arctic snow. This is newsworthy, because it is a clear indication that these tiny plastic particles are being sucked right into the atmosphere and then carried very long distances. Distances that span the far corners of earth.

The researchers gathered and examined snow from the Arctic, as well as northern Germany, the Bavarian and Swiss Alps, and the North Sea island of Heligoland. They expected to find microplastics, but the "enormous concentrations surprised us," said Melanie Bergmann, who is a researcher in Germany.

Maybe you are asking, what are microplastics? They are created when man-made materials break apart and are defined as pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters. And this isn't the first time microplastics have been found and studied. Previously they were found in Paris, Tehran, and Dongguan, China.

This new research suggests that the fragments may become airborne, similarly to dust and pollen. There is a growing concern about the impact microplastics have on the environment, but scientists have yet to determine to what effect, if any, the particles have on the wildlife or on humans.

The high concentrations of microplastics may be partly attributed to the methods the researchers used in gathering the data, according to Martin Wagner, who is a biologist, but was not involved with the study. He raises this point, because this study allowed for microplastics as small as 11 micrometers to be included, which is less than the width of a human hair. So, very thin. "This is significant because most studies so far looked at much larger microplastics," Wagner said. "Based on that, I would conclude that we very much underestimate the actual microplastics levels in the environment."

Wagner also points to how snow may be an important reservoir for storing microplastics and releasing it during snow melt, which has not been looked at before. This is something to keep in mind, since snow caps around the world are melting and potentially releasing microplastics into the air.

If you find this interesting, you can read the whole story here.


Think Tank Wants 5-Cent Fee On Carryout Paper Bags In NYC

Posted On: April 17, 2019

The Citizens Budget Commission, a New York City think tank, has come out and voiced their support for legislation that would impose a 5-cent fee on most paper carryout bags. This according to a recent article published by Crain's New York Business. They passed on a written testimony to the City Council Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management that stated a ban on plastic bags, along with a fee on paper bags, would be a more effective method for combating single-use bags than a simple ban. Here is a quote from the Commission: "Absent the fee, which provides the economic incentive to bring reusable bags to the store, simple bans tend to shift consumers from one type of bag to another rather than reducing the use of single-use bags,"

This sort of logic makes sense. The commission, to help back up their claim, brought up other notable cities. In Washington D.C., the hybrid single-use ban and fee law has been implemented for a while now and is credited with increasing the use of reusable bags. And in Los Angeles, a similar proposition has led to a 94% reduction in single-use bags. 

Single-use plastic bags are a great threat to the environment and need to be addressed as soon as possible. In 2017, New York City passed a bill that would impose a 5-cent fee on any paper or plastic bag, but this bill was blocked from going into effect. However, the fiscal 2020 state budget included legislation to ban single-use plastic bags statewide, giving counties the option to opt in and impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags. According to the legislation presented, 40% of the revenue that is collected in New York City would go back to the city in order to buy and distribute reusable bags. And the remaining 60% of revenue would go towards the state's Environmental Protection Fund. 

Hopefully this budget passes, because eradicating single-use plastic bags would do wonders for the environment as a whole. The build-up of plastic in our wastes has become a huge issue that needs to be dealt with properly. New York City needs to follow the steps of other big cities and lead the way into a greener future.


Is This The End of Recycling?

Posted On: March 06, 2019

Why Some Papers and Plastics Are Ending Up In The Trash
Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

For a long time, Americans have been stigmatized for their lack of recycling habits. However, over the years, many have come around and are recycling at acceptable levels. And this extends further to just home. Airports, malls, schools and office buildings across the country have placed extra bins for plastic bottles, aluminum cans and newspapers. Some cities even have inspectors for these commercial buildings who can lay down fines for failing to recycle properly. 

Unfortunately, much of this carefully sorted recycling is now ending up in the trash anyway. For decades, America sent over the bulk of their recycling to China. These materials were re-purposed into goods and resold as shoes, bags and other new plastic plastic products. But last year China imposed a ban on shipping these materials over anymore. They restricted imports of certain recyclables, which included mixed paper (magazines, office paper, junk mail, etc.) and most plastics.

This measure has had great effect on the recycling procedures in the US. Waste management companies across the country have told towns, cities and counties that there is no longer a market for their recycling. Thus, two choices are available for these places: payer higher rates to get rid of the recycling or simply throw it all away. Sadly, many are choosing the latter option. This means that much more plastic is being burned and releasing toxins into the environment. 

And this end to recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever before. The environmental cost to this trend could be terrible. When any organic waste sits in a landfill, it decomposes, which emits methane. A toxin that is bad for the climate. And burning plastic produces carbon emissions, another harmful impact to the environment.

This is an issue that needs to be monitored over time. Without an external avenue to recycle, perhaps companies should look inward. But many companies have trepidation when it comes to this route, because, despite the number growing, Americans are still generally terrible at recycling. By that I mean they mix and match improperly, leading to issues with recycling plants. Why shipping it to China worked so well is that the cost to ship it over was low. But this was because China employed low-waged workers to pick through it. So for recycling to work in America, people need to learn how to properly recycle and/or simply pay for the costs of people to sift through the recycling properly.


Avoid Soap Contamination By Switching To Sealed Systems

Posted On: January 23, 2019

Experts often cite hand washing as the single most important practice in controlling the spread of germs. But what if washing hands left them more bacteria-ridden than they were before a person washed them? 

These were the findings of several studies, led by Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, on the effects of using hand soap from contaminated refillable dispensers. These dispensers get refilled by pouring in new soap from bulk containers. Samples were taken from soap dispensers in a variety of public restrooms, including those found in shopping malls, office buildings and restaurants.

“Certain types of bacteria will grow well in refillable type dispensers,” says Dr. Gerba. “From what we’ve seen in several studies, 20 to 25 percent [of bulk dispensers] will have large numbers of bacteria at one time or another.”

Bacteria from the “bulk” or refillable soap dispenser will remain on the users’ hands even after using the soap, says Dr. Gerba. These include fecal bacteria, which are very tolerant to soap, as well as pseudomonas arogenosa, which causes skins and eye infections.

“You get more fecal bacteria on your hands than if you stuck your hands in the toilet,” says Dr. Gerba.

Study results further demonstrated that bacteria from contaminated hands can be transferred to secondary surfaces — leading to the conclusion that washing with contaminated soap not only defeats the purpose of hand washing but may contribute to the transmission of potentially harmful bacteria.

So how does bulk soap become contaminated? According soap manufacturers, germs are typically introduced to the dispensers when they are refilled with soap.  

“Any bulk dispenser can come into contact with germs through the environment,” says Dan Renner, director of marketing for Kutol Products Company, Sharonville, Ohio. “It can be via dirty hands, dirty rags, water or particles in the air during the refill process.”

Just as opening the dispenser can introduce germs into the system, opening the bulk soap container can lead to contaminated contents, which are then transferred from the bottle to the dispenser. Dr. Gerba visited two sites where soap was contaminated during the mixing process prior to filling the dispenser. 

“We looked at some barrels that had a slime layer at the bottom,” he says. “So sometimes when they’re mixing and diluting the soap, and then re-containerizing it at their facility, they get a continuous culture of bacteria.”

In some cases, the introduction of contaminants could even be intentional. Refillable soap dispensers are easy targets for vandals, says Thom Wojtkun, market development director for GOJO Industries in Akron, Ohio.

“Open systems are prone to being vandalized,” he says. “Someone with malicious intent can open them and put something into the dispenser. So there’s definitely an unnecessary public health risk [with open systems] due to these contamination sources.” 

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A Giant Net Has Been Deployed to Clean Up Plastics in the Pacific Ocean

Posted On: October 17, 2018

A 23-year-old Dutch inventor named Boyan Slat has figured out a way to clean up the Earth's oceans: by deploying the world's first ocean plastic cleanup system. It is a 2,000 foot floating barrier, that Slat has named System 001 and it will make its way from San Francisco into the Pacific Ocean, collecting plastic on its journey. The Dutch environmental start-up, Ocean Cleanup Foundation, launched this device last month. The system's ultimate destination is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is a swirling collection of plastic waste that has ballooned to a size that is two times larger than the state of Texas. This barrier is held in position by ocean currents between California and Hawaii.

Slat projects that an array of 60 different plastic pickup systems can reduce the amount of plastic in the area by half by the year 2025. This new system is solid and not a net, which is great because that way the sea life will not get entangled. It is a U-shaped pipe that is connected to a 3 meter deep net that helps to trap litter. The system will collect the plastic and make it ready to be collected by boats and subsequently taken for recycling by using GPS-enabled buoys and satellite receptors. Every few months, a garbage hauling boat will make trips to remove the collected plastic. 

The U.N. says over 8 million tons of plastic still enter the oceans each year. The goal of this new system is to turn the collected plastic into something that can be reused, like a helmet, coat hanger or even a tooth brush, and is not just for a single use. By doing so, this tactic will reduce the chances of the plastic then ending right back in the ocean. Slat will be monitoring the progress of this system and hopes that the results of the barrier prove worthwhile. The plastic in the ocean has been an epidemic for some time and this new invention seems like a promising step into cleaner waters.