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Develop Local Industrial Composting Facilities for (C)PLA Recycling

Let's redesign the recycling & plastic waste system so that it can cope with biodegradable & compostable material and that it stays local.

Photo of Lorne Mitchell
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Solutions already exist to replace oil-based plastics with corn-based Polylactic Acid (PLA) and Crystallised PLA (CPLA).  Currently, a wide range of PLA / CPLA products are commercially available that can substitute plastic straws and films (as outlined in the cases).  For simplicity, we will describe PLA from now on, understanding that CPLA can be used at higher temperatures without degrading (such as moulding for the tops of hot drink cups).

A good example is the list of products manufactured by a Scottish-based packaging company called Vegware (  They have further developed Recyclable CPLA/PLA.  

Vegware produces PLA see-through containers with attached lids (removing the need for plastic film lids); straws; films for packaging and CPLA lid tops.  

The result of our research is that great solutions already exist to replace their plastic counterparts!

PLA has considerable benefits over normal plastic:

  • Technically, PLA is "carbon neutral"
  • PLA will not emit toxic fumes when incinerated.
  • PLA can break down into its constituent parts (CO2 and water) within three months in an industrial composting facility heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and fed a steady diet of digestive microbes.
  • PLA products require certain conditions for degradation which includes the appropriate amount of heat, moisture and air, etc. Generally, conventional landfills do not fulfil these necessary conditions.
  • The end-product from PLA composting is lactic acid - which is formed by natural fermentation in products such as cheese, yoghurt, soy sauce, sourdough, meat products and pickled vegetables.  Unlike Lactose, Lactic Acid is fine for Vegans to consume.

So why aren't we replacing plastic with PLA with the necessary urgency that is required to stop oil-based plastic packaging?  The picture is complex, but it probably comes down to a combination of some of the following drawbacks:

  • PLA is not microwave-safe.  CPLA can handle the heat (for lid-tops).
  • PLA degrades very slowly (unless it is subjected to industrial composting- see below).  A PLA bottle, for instance, could take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill and is not much better than oil-based plastics that are thrown away into landfill.
  • PLA products require certain special conditions for degradation (which includes the appropriate amount of heat, moisture and air, etc.).  There is currently a shortage of PLA local industrial composting facilities that will perform such degradation.
  • The current recycling system (which is only ~14% effective) gets fouled up if it has to process both oil-based and corn-based PLA plastic materials.
  • Most PLA uses genetically-modified corn and truly "green" consumers may well get "religious" and prefer (rightly) to go the extra mile and use reusable containers (like we used in the olden days) with cloth bags, baskets etc. as well as non-plastic drinks bottles.
  • PLA is sourced from corn - and demand for ethanol fuel (also made from corn) is rising.  This might have an impact on the price of PLA in the future.

The main issue preventing wide scale uptake appears to be the fact that PLA and oil-based plastics don't mix well and need to be treated as separate "recycling" streams. 

To scale this solution, we need to:

  • design more effective communications via brands (such as supermarkets, coffee chains etc.) so that consumers understand the benefits of using and separating out PLA containers over oil-based plastic materials - as well as the fact that PLA needs to be composted in specialist local industrial composting facilities (LCIFs - my term)
  • design collection mechanisms that are close to the point sale so that consumers are more likely to drop the PLA containers in the right "recycling" stream.
  • design a system that can separate out PLA containers that are put into plastic "recycling" streams (through the redesign of labelling/marking and sorting processes).
  • implement many local industrial composting facilities (LICFs) that can process PLA locally and will prevent the PLA "recycling" streams from being exported (like current practice for plastic to places like China etc.).

The business case would appear to be compelling looking at the opportunity top-down - but more work needs to be done here to prove the point!  (Unless readers know where it already has been done?)

One obvious way to pilot this idea would be to start with selected Transition Towns and their associated local supermarkets and cafes.  The Transition Town movement is already thinking ahead on issues like this and the learning in the early stages of the project would likely be accelerated dramatically so that we could scale the best solutions found in the pilot stage.


How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

If PLA is made mandatory (through law) and if sufficient investment is made in the collection, sorting and industrial composting facilities, then we could reduce oil-based plastic "recycling'/rubbish to zero by 2025 for all small plastic items!

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Applies to all use cases. Applies to all geographic contexts.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

+ design more effective communications so that consumers understand the benefits of using and separating out PLA and other compostable containers v. oil-based ones + design collection mechanisms that are close to the point sale + design a system that can separate out PLA containers that are put into plastic "recycling" streams (through the redesign of labelling/marking and sorting processes). + implement many local industrial composting facilities (LICFs) that can process PLA locally

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

If this becomes a Top Idea, then we would be able to get access to the brands that could cooperate in communicating the benefits to consumers of using PLA, design new specialist sorting systems for PLA/CPLA, implement local industrial composting facilities.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

The ideas are not new. However, looking at the end-to-end system in this way probably is. We are a design agency of four employees and eight associates and are always coming up with innovative and sustainable ideas. This is one of them.

Tell us about your work experience

I am a business designer, entrepreneur, engineer and passionate about finding innovative designs for sustainable packaging and zero plastic waste.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

We are a limited company registered in England and Wales.


Join the conversation:

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Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Lorne!

Interesting post and it is good to see you in the ideas phase as well.

I think it highlights the challenges of some of the alternative materials to conventional plastics.

Would PLAs impact food prices at scale?

Who would potentially pay the costs for the landfills?

I would love to know more about this - Technically, PLA is "carbon neutral”. Does this include direct greenhouse gas emissions or direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions from land use change)?

What changes to the current plastics system are needed to implement this idea (especially considering upstream at the production stage, distribution etc.? What resources or partnerships might be helpful for your team to make those changes happen?

Photo of Kate Rushton

I just want to highlight this for you from the Evaluation criteria:

'For this Challenge, the following solutions are not in scope:

Strictly end-of-pipe solutions such as novel collection systems, unless they are an integral part of a redesigned format/delivery model/system
Re-design of large packaging items or other packaging that is already widely recycled (even though in some regions still with low recycling rates, such as beverage bottles)'

Photo of Lorne Mitchell

Thanks, Kate. I don't understand the first one. Are you saying that this idea is not within the scope of the rules of the competition?

In my view, to obtain the impact we need to replace oil-based plastics and get a dramatic uptake of PLA/CPLA (and particularly RCPLA) it is vital that we consider the end-to-end circular design of the total system. Therefore, this design is an integral part of a redesigned end-to-end delivery system that requires redesign at every stage. If the brief is too narrow and doesn't allow for the end-to-end circular view, then we are stuck in the same mindset that is stopping this type of solution to flourish. As Einstein said: "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.". Suggest we have a call if this doesn't make sense. I obviously don't want to waste your time (and mine) if you think this idea has broken the rules!

Photo of Lorne Mitchell

PLAs would impact food price sales very little if at all.
PLAs wouldn't go to landfill. They are recyclable!
PLA is truly carbon neutral. The components come from corn, not oil.
There are no changes to the current upstream processes for oil-based plastics. This replaces it!
It would be great to have partnerships with a few Transition Towns (Totnes, Hastings, Brixton?) as well as Vegware (who have developed the approach for RCPLA) and perhaps the Coop or M&S supermarket chains as well as a cafe chain such as Starbucks or Costa. It would also be important to have a partnership with a research establishment or current manufacturer that can provide the Local Industrial Composting Facilities for the pilot phase.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Sorry, I was replying to the previous version of the post and it has since been edited.

Who would pay for the composting facilities? (The previous version of the post mentioned specialised landfills for the PLAs).

What changes would be needed to the current system to allow the use of PLAs at scale i.e.upstream would changes be needed to production methods or does it drop into existing bottle cap manufacturing processes? What additional infrastructure/facilities needed to scale this solution e.g. facilities to convert corn feedstocks etc? What changes to the current plastics system are needed to implement this idea at scale?

What changes are needed (as well as the end-of-pipe solution of composting facilities) when you are considering the end-to-end solution?

In my previous life, I did some work on biofuels and looked at biofuels derived from corn. Biofuels are assumed to be carbon neutral for the renewable fuel standards but its 'carbon neutral' status is contentious. I was just wondering whether indirect land use change was considered for PLAs to consider them to be carbon neutral.

Photo of Lorne Mitchell

The composting facilities would be paid for by the local authorities.
For RCPLA materials, then the local authorities or the supermarkets/coffee chains would be paid money for the recyclable material.
There is no landfill. (See the videos).
Production facilities can be adapted, I believe. However, this needs to be checked. It might also be a case of competitive forces at work to shift the production to new facilities. That's cool too!
Worldwide, I believe corn-based PLAs are essentially controlled by a subsidiary of Cargill. This could be a potential issue as corn-based biofuels are also another demand stream on this raw material. Needs further investigation. Ideally, local sources of corn will grow over time to compensate for lack of supply.
I find "end of pipe" a bit meaningless when thinking circular design. However, if, by end-of-pipe you mean the return path, then PLAs are recycled (RCPLAs for instance) or they are biodegraded to Lactic Acid and water (