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Small-scale production and recycling of PLA plastics in food establishments

Tightening the loop on plastic commodity production and recycling

Photo of Joshua Morales
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Current single-use plastic items used for food consumption such as coffee lids, straws and utensils are not sorted when discarded and are prone to leakage in recycling systems. These items are technically recyclable, yet their small size makes them difficult to recapture and do not create enough value for recycling entities to incorporate them in their reclaiming process. This creates a lasting damaging effect by leaving these plastics to settle in the natural environment. To mitigate this situation, environmentally conscious food establishments can tighten the loop on plastic waste by using PLA plastic in their packaging and utensils and recycling the material for local use in new products.

Through the use of PLA plastic (PLA reclaiming and 3D printing), supermarkets and large food establishments could be able to locally manufacture straws and utensils needed by consumers and recycle the used articles to create new products. Additionally, any PLA which is not captured for recycling is biodegradable and will have significantly less impact on the environment than traditional plastics. The recycling of this material allows for the merchant to retain the material value of the plastic in his business, by not having to purchase single use plastic products.

PLA is a biodegradable plastic, meaning it will compost naturally in the environment and even faster in controlled composting environments. While all bioplastics are biodegradable, not all biodegradable plastics are sustainably derived. Some biodegradable plastics are still created from petroleum derivatives, whereas PLA can be harvested from biomass such as sugar and corn. Thus, solely by switching from traditional plastics to PLA, we can decouple the chain from fossil fuels. Additionally, PLA is widely used in the 3D printing industry, which allows a producer to create many different products and design changes without having to invest in new hardware.


Development plan

The system proposed uses technology that is commercially available and not significantly too expensive for medium to large businesses to incorporate. Additionally, the hardware required for filament extrusion is available in different capacities, which can be determined by the estimated daily demand of the establishment. Thus, this system can be easily tailored to merchants or an entire community such as a restaurant district. Complete sanitation of the materials used will be a critical area addressed prior to scaling up. Consumers must be confident these products are as safe or safer than their plastic packaged counterparts.

To gain widespread acceptance, a pilot program is necessary to demonstrate the feasibility and acceptance by consumers to use these sustainable products. This can be done in a local university cafeteria such at the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez (UPRM), where 3D printing facilities are already established. In fact, one of our engineers is currently a graduate student and instructor at UPRM, which will help facilitate implementation.

Geographical context

We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts and Figures, Feb. 2010).

With such a low participation rate in recycling, the design of products and services must be inherently sustainable until policy and system solutions can be developed to nudge people to adopt more sustainable habits. This is already happening in Cabo Rojo, where the Orange Initiative (Iniciativa Naranja) has been implemented to financially incentivize recycling. While the policies are developed across the island for better recycling habits, the products and services that people use need to also be redesigned around the ideas of a closed-loop system and zero-waste. It is for these reasons that developing more sustainable goods, such as biodegradable PLA plastic products, will help contribute to Puerto Rico's adoption of circular economy principles.

Company / Organization Name

Isla Innovations


Where are you / your team located?

Washington, DC and Puerto Rico

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

Current single-use plastic items used for food consumption such as coffee lids, straws and utensils are not sorted when discarded and are prone to leakage in recycling systems. While technically recyclable, their small size makes them difficult to recapture and do not create enough value for recycling entities. Thus, we tighten the loop on plastic waste by using PLA plastic in packaging and utensils and recycling the material for local use in new products.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 2 (bottle caps and tear-off containers), Case 3 (straws and take-away lids) and other single use plastics such as utensils.

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

We chose to address Puerto Rico due to low recycling rates and limited waste management infrastructure. In addition, Isla Innovations has roots in Puerto Rico.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

After success of our pilot program, we intend to scale the program to the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico and throughout the island at major restaurant franchises, mall food courts, cafeterias, and individual restaurants. Then, further scaling can be done nationally in the Continental United States (and eventually globally) in other urban areas. This way, the model can have proof of concept at a community level, city level, and region level before expanding to the national and global markets.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

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

Through the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, our team can validate our design against the circular economy model with experts in the field and identify ideal partnerships. Early identification of a manufacturing partnership is crucial to validate design performance and manufacturing feasibility.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

Being a team of engineers, we are familiar with the capabilities of 3D printing and the materials used (in fact, we own a 3D printer and have access to numerous other 3D printers). The adaptability afforded by this technology coupled with the use of a sustainable material allow it to be an ideal candidate to provide many solutions and empower local communities through its low cost.

Tell us about your work experience

Isla Innovations is an innovation firm comprised of experienced engineers, designers, and business professionals and specializes in sustainability guidance and technology research.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

Isla Innovations is a worker-owned cooperative startup.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Andrew

Won't 3D printing in PLA just take too long to be practically viable? A bottle cap, for example, will take 15 minutes each. Even in the trial they will use hundreds of these small items.

Right thinking though; I believe there is a strong argument for local collection -> sortation -> re-manufacturing or reuse.

Photo of Timothy Lee

Andrew, thanks for your comment, and sorry for the late reply (for some reason, I don't get comment notifications). It is true that printing time is a known limitation when considering 3D printing for production. However, there are some new technologies in 3D printing that have significantly increased printing speeds, particularly in commercial-grade machines, and technologies are rapidly advancing, which will hopefully make 3D printing more feasible for mass manufacturing in the near future. Additionally, there is an opportunity for applications using PLA powder in laser sintering 3D systems, which tend to be faster than fused filament deposition methods.

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