PHOENIX (AP) — All Danny Clark wanted was to leave an eco-friendly footprint for his children.
That and to ride the new wave of "green business" startups by coming up with a way to make money and help the environment at the same time.
His idea was simple: If he could make plastic water bottles biodegradable, it would reduce the impact on landfills, curb roadside litter and reduce the amount of plastic garbage that eventually washes into the oceans.
Everybody wins. Well, not everybody.
The Mesa man's small-business venture has run into opposition from a large and unexpected source: the $400 billion recycling industry, which fears that by making plastic bottles biodegradable, it will reduce the stream of plastic refuse used to make everything from carpet to clothing to new bottles. In addition, changing the makeup of plastic bottles could make it more difficult to recycle them, the industry fears.
With plastic-bottle sales already slowing and only a small amount being recycled, the industry is meeting threats to its profits head-on, actively campaigning against attempts by companies like Clark's to make bottles biodegradable.
Billions of plastic bottles, which take millions of barrels of oil to produce, appear on supermarket shelves every year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Only about 28 percent of bottles manufactured in the U.S. end up being recycled, the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers said.
The other 72 percent winds up in landfills or as eyesore pollution across the land and in the sea.
Environmentalists point to a phenomenon known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a floating island of discarded plastic debris that is twice the size of Texas that is held together by swirling ocean currents, as an example of the proliferation of plastic pollution.
Clark, who said he is trying to leave "a legacy that we've done something positive in the environment," was inspired to quit his job as a communications engineer to form a team of microbiologists and polymer chemists to develop his bottle technology three years ago.
"Bottles are a big issue. It's talked about, and it's pretty visible," Clark said.
He launched his new startup, Mesa-based Enso Bottles, in 2008 and says he has come up with a truly biodegradable and recyclable polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic bottle.
The company produces an additive used in the plastic-manufacturing process and says on its website that independent testing data show bottles start to biodegrade in as little as 250 days in a controlled environment or as long as five years in the elements. In addition, Clark's data shows that the additive doesn't diminish the quality or effectiveness of the plastic, he says.
Traditional plastic PET bottles can take hundreds of years to break into smaller pieces, but those pieces never actually decompose.
PET is used to make a wide range of products, particularly packaging containers for consumer goods, such as water and soda bottles.
Clark said that technologies allowing plastics to biodegrade have been around for several decades but that the process had not been applied to PET bottles.
He collaborated with a team of chemists, microbiologists and manufacturers for a year and half using earlier technology to find new compounds that could blend into PET and make it biodegradable.
Recycling-industry experts have concerns about Enso's biodegradable efforts, saying they are not convinced the technology works, but they also worry that if it does, it will damage their business.
The experts say biodegradable products are more difficult and costly to recycle than PET bottles.
Dennis Sabourin of the National Association for PET Container Resources said the association is not in favor of anything that disrupts that recycled-product stream.
"We want to make sure it does not affect the raw material," Sabourin said. "Does it affect the service life of products that are being made today with (PET bottles)?"
More than a year ago, the association sent out a news release to all PET manufacturers asking them to refrain from using biodegradable additives.
Other industry representatives agree.
"Why degrade?" asked David Cornell of the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. "There is nothing about degrading plastics that is useful for recycling."
Cornell said Enso has tried to convince them that the biodegradable additive will not hurt their business, but the recycling industry still fears it poses a threat. He is skeptical of Clark's lab results and says the Mesa business hasn't shown proof to them that it works.
"So far, we haven't seen that it does degrade or is not hostile to recycling. If it doesn't degrade, then who wants it? If it does degrade, what does it do to recycling?"
Cornell credits Enso for trying to solve a problem and said that, unlike some other companies, Enso has tried to work with the industry and communicate about product tests.
"They're working on it. I will give them credit," Cornell said.
The Enso additive is one of dozens of biodegradable products that have emerged in recent years.
Clark said his formula is proprietary and will not discuss specifics. However, he said his additive pellets, made from organic materials approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are used by nearly a dozen beverage and plastic companies.
One of those using Enso's formula is Global Garden Friends of California, which makes a biodegradable planter used to grow plants and vegetables.
"We wanted to have a biodegradable additive in our product," said Don Rein, the company's national sales manager. He said the company produced its first 20,000 planters last fall using the Enso additive.
Last month, Redleaf, a premium Canadian bottled-water company, announced it is using Enso technology and creating its first biodegradable and recyclable water bottle. Already sold in Canada, the company's product will begin selling the bottles in the U.S. on Monday.
The Enso additive is made from 100 percent renewable sources, Clark said, and it meets American Society for Testing and Materials standards.
"We designed it so the bottle can commingle in the recycling stream. So, the value in what we're bringing to the table is that we don't impact existing infrastructure for recycling and manufacturing but we do provide a great end-of-life solution," he said.
He added that Enso plastic bottles maintain the same physical properties as PET bottles and do not flake like some other additives, which can pose a danger to birds and fish, and are completely recyclable.
Clark is unfazed by the recycling industry's skepticism. "We're definitely going to keep fighting along with this," he said, adding, "It wouldn't be right to roll over and let big money" prevent a technology that is right for the moment from moving forward.
"We're not going away on our own," Clark said. "We're not going to quit. We're going to keep going."