Sorting and recycling PLA bioplastics: an exploration

As CE Delft describes in its report “Biobased plastics in a circular economy”, bioplastics can play a useful role in a circular economy, particularly if there is maximum end-of-life recycling. Certain bioplastics like bio-PET and bio-PE are already partly recycled, being sorted out for that purpose from plastic consumer waste. The bioplastic PLA (polylactic acid), the third used in a sizeable volume as a packaging material, is not yet sorted out for recycling, however. This study explores whether this is feasible and assesses the costs, benefits and potential environmental gains.

The first conclusion is that, with the currently low volume of PLA in the packaging mix (<0.4%), sorting it out for recycling is not worthwhile, in terms either of cost or environmental cost effectiveness. If the government encourages use of biobased plastics, as anticipated, the share of PLA in the packaging mix will probably rise, though. Once this figure is up to 1-5% PLA (depending on various factors, differing per sorting facility) sorting out for recycling will become economically worthwhile and will also yield environmental benefits at low cost. In principle, then, once the market volume has grown, sorting and recycling PLA will be a viable proposition, both economically and ecologically. 

There are still a number of practical questions, though, concerning the precise handling of PLA in Dutch sorting facilities. A new project was therefore recently started at CE Delft to answer these questions on the basis of practical trials at a sorting plant.