Plastics processors understand well that plastics, whether petroleum-based or bio-based, are valuable materials for which a host of end-of-life options have been developed. Re-use and recycling routes are in place for petroleum-based polymers such as PET, PE, PVC and EPS, with energy recovery through combustion serving as the ultimate solution.
Non-degradable biobased materials currently also are incinerated, as robust recycling options are lacking for these plastics. However, it was long thought that the best way to dispose of bio-based, degradable plastics - polylactic acid (PLA) being a good example - was to allow them to degrade in the environment, thus avoiding the waste and pollution problems associated with conventional polymers. Gradually, however, it is starting to be recognized that disposing of all biodegradable polymers through industrial composting is by no means always the most efficient end-of-life choice. New options are now slowly appearing.
Galactic, a Belgian company specialized in the production of lactates and lactic acid mainly from sugar beets, is among those researching better avenues for the disposal of post-consumer PLA plastic waste. The company has a vested interest in the disposal issues surrounding PLA: in 2007, together with Total Petrochemicals, it established a joint venture called Futerro that aimed to develop a clean and competitive technology for the production of PLA. The lactic acid is sourced from Galactic, while the polymerization technology required is contributed by Total Petrochemicals. Today, Futerro produces a family of second-generation PLAs for applications ranging from disposables and packaging to carpeting and electronics.