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'Earth-friendly' claims for corn-based plastics can mislead; local businesses can help

Spurt Industries and Organicycle offer collection and composting services that allow corn plastics to decompose in the way intended.
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Amanda Ebenhoeh of The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand displaying their compostable cups.

Amanda Ebenhoeh of The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand displaying their compostable cups. /Erik Zimmerman

A Spurt Industries dumpster.

A Spurt Industries dumpster. /Erik Zimmerman


Buying eco-friendly products is good for the environment and it makes consumers feel good, but some “green” products have caveats. Fortunately for Grand Rapids, two area companies are working to ensure that certain eco-friendly products meet their intended end.

Here’s a little background: Polylactic acid (PLA) is a material used in packaging, disposable cups, bowls, utensils, and boxes. Unlike the widely used, petroleum-based polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PET, PLA is derived from renewable cornstarch. PLA manufacturer NatureWorks LLC says the product emits 60 percent less greenhouse gases than polymers like PET.

From an environmental standpoint, this is great news but the claim that the material decomposes into carbon dioxide and water in less than 90 days does not involve your backyard compost heap. It must be done in a controlled composting environment that reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. Nationwide, there are only 113 such composting facilities.

Grand Rapids has two local businesses working to help those PLA products reach their potential. Spurt Industries, a West Michigan-based commercial composting facility, works with area businesses like Grove and San Chez, who use PLA products, to properly dispose of the containers.

“We have been composting PLA cups for around five years,” said Tom Turner, the company’s owner.

Spurt is also the facility where organic waste collected by Organicycle, a Grand Rapids-based collector of organic waste, is composted. Organicycle began two years ago and offers curbside collection for Grand Rapids residents and businesses. Items collected and composted include PLA products.

“It’s pretty much the same price as regular trash pickup and you’re diverting your waste from a landfill, protecting the environment and recycling your product into compost,” said Dan Tietema, president of Organicycle.

Recycling facilities often look at PLA as a contaminant, since it can’t be recycled like PET products can. Most recyclable plastics are collected and baled by materials recovery facilities, which sell material to processors for recycling. Since PLA and PET can’t be recycled in the same way, recyclers have to pay to sort out the PLA and dispose of it. Inevitably, some of the corn-based containers will go to a landfill.

When asked about the decomposition time of PLA in a landfill, Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks LLC, stated that the compostable cups will last “as long as a PET bottle,” ranging from 100 to 1,000 years.

Some still question whether PLA is really a step in the right direction, but with the services in Grand Rapids, the compostable material can achieve its sustainable potential.

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