While many can’t imagine life without bottled water, it wasn’t that long ago—the 1960s, in fact—that plastic bottle production didn’t exist. Today, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the plastic of choice in the beverage industry. According to ENSO Plastics, more than 75 percent of the ubiquitous bottles (and 94 percent of all plastics) end up in landfills. “We really want to solve the world’s plastic pollution issue,” said President Danny Clark of the Mesa, Ariz.–based company. ENSO is taking advantage of this statistic with its current solution: fully biodegradable and recyclable PET plastic.
“When we started, some of the cofounders had experience with bottled water companies. I was one of them,” said Clark. “We were exposed on a regular basis to the environmental impacts that bottled water has in the environment.” Customers asked the co-founders regularly for alternatives.
Developing a plastic bottle alternative
The company spent one and a half years developing its current solution to the 100 billion plastic bottles that are added to landfills each year. To effect change immediately, ENSO chose to implement a solution that could fit into existing manufacturing and end-of-life infrastructures. “Plastics in their raw component are biodegradable, but because we engineer them into these long-chain polymers, microbes can’t break them down as easily,” said Clark. “We took a concept that’s been around for decades, which is adding certain organic compounds into existing polymers.” These additives provide food for microbes to biodegrade the bottle once it meets the landfill.
ENSO had to create its own supply chain in order to sell the additive. “Brands were looking for solutions, but manufacturers really weren’t,” he said. So the company found preform manufacturers, bottle blowers and bottle fillers who could complete the life cycle of these PET biodegradable bottles. ENSO Plastics can be found in 12 countries and more than 6,000 retail outlets. In the natural products industry, Project7, Aquamantra and redleaf are three major users of ENSO’s plastic.
ENSO bottles do not begin to biodegrade until the plastic is placed into a highly microbial environment, so they behave and look exactly like nonbiodegradable PET bottles. It can take anywhere from one to 15 years for a bottle to break down completely, depending on its environment.
The company faces competition in oxo biodegradable and PLA plastic bottles, but both have their downsides and neither biodegrade in landfills. The former is also an additive, but faces degradation from light, heat and moisture; the latter is made from plant starch, and environmentalists argue that fossil fuels used to make these bottles are harsher than traditional plastics—plus, there’s the possibility of GMOs. PLA is recyclable, but not within the current recycling infrastructure.
ENSO didn’t just stop with bottles, however. “We’re expanding into other polymers,” said Clark. “We now have formulations that will work with major types of plastics. Now you can have a complete package that’s biodegradable: the cap, the shrink wrap, the label.”