By Karen R. Smith, WC&P Executive Editor

Pulling up to the gas pump has become an ever-more expensive prospect as per-gallon prices continue to rise with no end in sight. Could there be a better time to announce the invention of plastic derived from corn instead of fossil fuels?

President Bush signed a new energy bill as this issue was on press, seeking to expand the alternatives to the country’s continued dependence on petroleum. Just how reliant are we? Here are some facts, gathered by the 3R Program at Northern Illinois University:

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used to make 62 percent of all plastic bottles, most commonly containing milk, detergents, shampoos, pharmaceuticals, juices, bottled water and antifreeze.
  • In 1987, the U.S. used almost one billion barrels of oil just to make plastics.
  • When buried, some plastic material may last for 700 years. (Manufacturers add inhibitors that resist the decomposition process necessary to break down the plastic.)
  • Over 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on every square mile of ocean.
  • Although polystyrene foam (commonly known as Styrofoam) is completely non-biodegradable, it is recyclable. If you lined up all the polystyrene foam cups made in just one day, they would circle the earth.
  • Americans use four million plastic bottles every hour, yet only one bottle out of four is recycled.
  • Americans make enough low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic every year to shrink-wrap the state of Texas. Most of it ends up in landfills.
  • Plastics are part of the waste stream: although they account for only eight percent of the waste by weight, they occupy about 20 percent of the volume in a landfill due to their low bulk density.
  • In 1988 we used two billion pounds of HDPE just to make bottles for household products. That’s about the weight of 900,000 Honda Civics.
  • Since the introduction of PET containers in the late 1970’s, the industry has reduced the weight of PET in two-liter bottles from 67 grams on average to about 48 grams; a 28 percent reduction.
  • It takes five recycled two-liter bottles to make enough fiberfill for one ski jacket.
  • It takes 1,050 recycled milk jugs to make one six-foot plastic park bench.
  • About nine billion plastic bottles are produced annually in the U.S. about two-thirds of which end up in landfills or incinerators. Most of the rest go to Wellman Inc. a recycling facility in South Carolina. Wellman annually recycles about 2.4 billion plastic bottles into a polyester fiber known as Fortrel EcoSpun, which ends up in active wear.

With those sobering numbers close at hand, the switch to corn seems 100 percent positive – and yet:
According to Plastic Plight: Going to waste by Kiyohide Inada and Hirotaka Yamaguchi, China’s demand for PET bottles could cause the demise of Japan’s recycling industry. Shipping used PET bottles to China is bringing Japanese municipalities a tidy profit. The authors state that the Japan Containers and Packaging Recycling Association (JCPRA) association will process around 177,000 tons of PET bottles in fiscal 2005, down 7.3 percent from the 191,000 tons in fiscal 2004.

The JCPRA, as well as domestic dealers and processors, are losing out to exporters that annually ship about 100,000 tons of used PET bottles to China. Most of Japan’s used PET bottles end up in Ningbo, a city 150 km south of Shanghai that has emerged as one of the largest recycling hubs in the world. Each year, the port city receives tons of plastic waste, which is processed and remade into toys, stationery and even cartons for eggs.

Recycling generates significant economic benefits both in the U.S. and abroad. In South Carolina, for example, it’s estimated that it has a $1.4 billion impact — because the state has recycled more than 1.31 million tons of materials in fiscal year 2003. There are 20,000 people employed by the recycling industry as a whole with an estimated payroll of $712 million.

If corn bottles are right for your customers, do please call NatureWorks LLC or Biota Brands of America today and make the change. If not, make sure your continued use of PET is environmentally responsible. The two together will ensure industry-wide success.


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