Smart Plastic Technologies LLC (SPT) says it has developed two products — an additive and a material — that cause plastic to rapidly degrade in response to businesses seeking alternatives to plastic straws, which may be used for only a matter of minutes yet litter land and waterways for eons.
Best Diamond Plastics LLC in Chicago turned to the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company to come up with a solution for its fast-food customers, including McDonald’s, which has a goal of sourcing all packaging and straws from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025.
Founded 10 years ago on the city’s South Side, the minority-owned company has heard from other buyers of its polypropylene straws and stirrers like Wendy’s, Dairy Queen, Portillo’s and Jack in the Box.
“They’re all interested in a better mousetrap,” Best Diamond President Mark Tolliver said in a phone interview. “They want something all their customers will accept, not just some.”
A YouTube video of a turtle with a straw lodged in its nose and images of shorelines awash with plastic and skeletons of sea birds with plastic-filled bellies are moving individuals, cities and corporations to action.
Starbucks will eliminate plastic straws at its 28,000 stores by 2020. The company designed a strawless PP lid for iced coffee, tea and espressos and will switch to paper or compostable plastic straws made from polylactic acid for Frappuccinos. The changes will eliminate the need to produce more than 1 billion plastic straws per year and discard them into a waste stream never really equipped to recycle the thin extruded products.
American Airlines is also on board. The airline will serve drinks with biodegradable straws or wooden stir sticks starting at airport lounges and then in November offer bamboo replacements on its 14,250 daily flights. The moves will reduce the airline’s plastics use by more than 71,000 pounds of per year.
McDonald’s is looking at several alternatives for its 37,000 stores in 100 countries. The company will switch to paper straws by 2019 in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The U.K. plans to ban all sales of single-use plastics as early as next year and synthetic straw sentiments are changing next door in Ireland, where the coastal town of Westport made a voluntary commitment to use biodegradable straws starting June 1.
McDonald’s is also testing plastic straw alternatives in Belgium and later this year will do the same in the United States, France, Sweden, Norway and Australia. And in Malaysia, the company will test out a plan to offer straws upon request only.
“We understand that recycling infrastructure, regulations and consumer behaviors vary from city to city and country to country, but we plan to be part of the solution and help influence powerful change,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Andrea Abate told Plastics News in an email.
McDonald’s was the first customer of Best Diamond, which opened in 2008 with five employees and has grown to 76. Tolliver is determined to keep his customers and employees while meeting demands from the public.
“I believe in preserving the planet. We only have one,” Tolliver said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to be a contributor to the solution as opposed to being a contributor to the problem. I’m sure there’s a solution that’s a win-win, and we’re looking to find it. I’m a cup half-full kind of guy.”
That’s where SPT comes in. Satisfying quality requirements for fast-food chains that serve a variety of hot, cold, foamy and frozen beverages while meeting eco-friendly expectations of the world seems like a tall order. However, SPT CEO Tim Murtaugh said in phone and email interviews that the challenge has been met in two ways that render plastic biodegradable.
A couple of options
SPT says it developed a bioassimilation additive that causes plastic to fully biodegrade when exposed to oxygen. It does its job in the open environment be it land or sea. The additive is a magnesium salt-based formulation that works in all plastics but PET, causing a typical straw to mostly break down within 18 months.
“Total biodegradation then occurs within approximately five years or less, very much the same as a leaf,” Murtaugh said. “The environmental factors have an effect; thus, it is not possible to claim that it will perform the same everywhere.”
SPT’s other new product, a material with a bio-based organic compound, replaces a variety of plastics like PP, Murtaugh said. It works only in composting environments, which require certain carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, temperatures and levels of moisture and oxygen. SPT says it complies with industry standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials, including a provision that calls for most of the carbon in plastics to be converted to gas within 180 days (ASTM 6400).
The material Starbucks is considering, PLA, is currently used to produce compostable plastics. But Murtaugh said it is expensive and, like SPT’s new material, only breaks down within the confines of composting facilities.
Tolliver is interested in both options but thinks the additive, which can be used to produce oxobiodegradable straws, might have wider appeal. In the presence of oxygen, he said, the additive causes the straws to break down to the point of not leaving any evidence of plastic in 24 months.
“You still have a good product that works for the customer, the end user, and also biodegrades similar to paper. It breaks down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water. I think it’s a great solution,” Tolliver said.
The additive has been approved by the Federal Drug Administration and adds less than half a penny to production costs.
Of SPT’s two alternatives for making plastic straws and other single-use products more palatable, Murtaugh said, “We anticipate the market will swing fully to the bioassimilation product within a year due to the superior technology.”
The additive has been sucking up a lot of attention from Best Diamond and other plastic straw producers whose needs extend beyond paper, stainless steel, glass, food-grade silicone, wheat, uncooked pasta and other options.
“We are in highly active conversations with some big players in both the straw production business as well as fast food because it not only works but it costs substantially less than paper or PLA,” Murtaugh said. “Paper costs a fortune and the carbon footprint is catastrophic to the environment. PLA is expensive and requires a composting environment to work.”
A straw made from PLA laying on the beach isn’t going to biodegrade, Murtaugh said.
“Ours will biodegrade laying on the beach, and it costs less than PLA or paper,” he said. “This is a real development milestone for the industry, and we’re very excited that we’re the guys that developed it.”
SPT’s additive is “programmable” in terms of the useful life of the finished product but works earlier if it “escapes” through an improper disposal stream, the company’s website says.
“Our customers tell us how long a useful period of time they want built into their product. We formulate accordingly,” Murtaugh said.
SPT explains the different stages of how the additive affects the product’s controlled useful life prior to natural degradation on its website.
“At a preplanned time, due to the metal salt and antioxidants in our formulation, the carbon-carbon bonds in the plastic’s molecular chains begin to break down,” the website states.
Antioxidants prevent the metal salt from reacting with oxygen until the preplanned time period is up, Michael Stephens, SPT’s technology director, explained in an email. Then, the antioxidants are no longer effective and the metal salt reacts with oxygen to create free radicals that attack the plastic’s carbon chain backbone, making smaller chain pieces. (The antioxidants also protect the magnesium salt during molding of the plastic). The carbon chains continue to fail and oxygen bonds with the carbon and produces CO2. The remaining molecular structure continues to shrink to smaller pieces, allowing microorganisms to access and “eat” the carbon and hydrogen. The plastic item deteriorates over a period of months.
“Actual biodegradation has commenced and the product is no longer truly a plastic,” the website explains. “Bioassimilation occurs similar to ordinary organic waste. The item will fully degrade until it becomes nothing more than CO2, water and biomass. The process can be accelerated by UV rays and heat. The additive contains no heavy metals and can be recycled.”
ASTM is considering a new standard to accommodate the additive technology, according to SPT.
“We developed it in response to demand for a straw, but it can be used in many other applications,” Murtaugh said. “Think of the lids on coffee cups and things of that nature. These are the companies we’re already talking to.”
Despite the anticipated appeal of the additive, SPT says it was important to develop a compost-compliant product, which Murtaugh says costs “slightly more.” Many cities enacting bans on single-use plastics like straws and utensils have adopted ordinances that allow recyclable or compostable plastic products and that essentially require compliance with the ASTM standard, Murtaugh said.
On July 1, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to ban plastic straws, utensils and cocktail picks at its 5,000 restaurants, bars and coffee houses. Only compostable plastic or paper straws can be given to customers. Some environmentalists are encouraging businesses and their patrons to pick paper straws. They too are pointing out that compostable straws don’t degrade in marine environments while noting that paper can dissolve in the ocean within hours.
Seattle and Starbucks also have had to address some backlash from people with disabilities. One woman, for example, who has cerebral palsy and limited use of her arms says she can only sip beverages with a bendable plastic straw because other materials collapse or aren’t flexible. Because of such concerns, Seattle is reiterating that there is an exception to the ban.
“We want to make sure it’s understood by food-service businesses that the ban does not apply to disposable flexible plastic drinking straws when needed by customers due to medical or physical conditions and for whom flexible compostable paper straws are unsuitable,” said Susan Fife-Ferris, director of solid waste planning and program management for Seattle Public Utilities, told local media.
Seattle also has temporary waivers valid through June 30, 2019, for disposable long-handled thick plastic soda spoons when required and used for thick drinks; metal foil, metal foil-faced papers and engineered composite papers used to wrap hot food, such as hamburgers and burritos; and portion cups that are 2 ounces or less if used for hot foods or requiring lids.
Failure to comply with the food service ware ordinance may result in a $250 fine.
Doing their best
Meanwhile, back at Best Diamond, Tolliver tries to keep up morale as he gives updates to employees.
“We’re not saying the sky is falling. We’re talking about the solutions we’re trying to put forth,” he said. “A lot of our employees have been here a long time and it’s kind of a family industry. I don’t know any other way to run a company. I’m not a big corporate guy. I just want to have something that provides positive returns for the people who are part of it.”
Tolliver started Best Diamond with partners and a commitment to the South Side, where crime, unemployment and poverty have been chronic problems. McDonald’s started ordering products right away.
“They wanted to be a part of trying to improve the area where they do business,” Tolliver said. “That’s one reason we were able to come together.”
Straws are a commodity, he added, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of capital to get into the business so there are a lot of players, especially in Asia.
“We started this business knowing it wouldn’t be a slam dunk. But I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I’m accustomed to challenges,” Tolliver said. “We started the business to bring more jobs to the community and more importantly a message to the community that if you work hard, keep your nose to the grindstone and get an education, you can have positive outcomes.”
However, the message is drowned out a bit these days with so many people speaking out against plastic straws.
“Straws are dead center of the environmentalists’ target list. It’s something they see as a nonessential and a contributor to plastic litter in oceans and on the ground. We get that,” Tolliver said. “We want to provide a solution — a good one that solves the main problems of litter on the ground and in the ocean.”
Tolliver thinks SPT is onto something with the additive.
“I feel it can work and is viable, but not only does the solution have to be effective, it has to meet social requirements. People, in general, have to feel good about it,” Tolliver said. “We’re doing our best to put forth a solution that we think will be acceptable.”
Plastics News correspondent Michael Lauzon contributed to this report.