Packaging, especially plastics, has come to symbolise our throwaway culture, with consumer packaging representing 3% of total waste sent to landfill every year.
PLA plastic can be a great solution for your packaging to achieve ‘environmentally friendly’ status. However, there are some worrying reports suggesting it may be a little more complicated than at first glance.
PLA stands for Polylactic Acid and is made of renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane. It is a natural polymer designed to substitute widely used petroleum-based plastics such as PET (polyethene terephthalate).
In packaging, PLA plastic is often used for plastic films and food containers.
We all know the world’s oil reserves will eventually run out. Petroleum-based plastics are derived from oil and so over time will become more difficult to source and manufacture. As PLA is derived from natural resources it can be constantly renewed.
Compared to its petroleum counterpart’s PLA plastic boasts some great eco benefits. According to independent reports, producing PLA uses 65 per cent less energy and generates 63 per cent fewer greenhouse gases.
Not all PLA plastic packaging will find its way to a composting facility. However, it’s reassuring to know that when corn-based plastics are incinerated they do not emit toxic fumes like PET or other petroleum-based plastics.
So, PLA plastics are compostable, great! But don’t expect to be using your little garden composter anytime soon. PLA plastics should be sent to a commercial facility who use extremely controlled environments to speed up decomposition. Even in that time, the process is said to take up to 90 days.
Local Authorities don’t collect compostable materials manufactured for industrial composting. Specific numbers for industrial composting facilities in the UK are difficult to find, just one sign you might struggle to locate exactly where and how can dispose of your PLA plastic.
A huge amount of corn is needed to produce PLA. As production of PLA continues and demand increases for non-food use it could affect the price of corn for global markets. Many food analysts have argued that vital natural resources are better used in food manufacture than packaging materials. With 795 million people in the world without enough food to lead a healthy active life, doesn’t it suggest a moral issue with the idea of growing crops for packaging and not for people?
The shelf life required for perishable foods will always be compromised with PLA films. What many people fail to see is this unavoidable paradox. You want a material to degrade over time, but you also want to keep your produce as fresh as possible.
The average lifespan for PLA film from the time of manufacture to final use can be as little as 6 months. So that’s a 6-month supply chain deadline, to manufacture packaging, pack products, sell products, deliver to the store and for the product to be consumed. This is especially difficult for brands looking to export products, as PLA will not provide the protection and longevity needed.
PLA plastic can be a great way to adopt a more environmentally friendly approach to your packaging. But brands need to seriously weigh up all the pros and cons before investing in packaging overhauls to meet loose, short-term environmental claims.
It’s clear we all need to address our throwaway culture. That’s consumers, businesses and governing bodies. What good comes from investing in the production of compostable packaging when the consumer doesn’t even know how or where to dispose of it? That beautiful PLA fil could still end up in a landfill for the next 100-1000 years.
By investing in more eco-friendly packaging solutions, companies are demonstrating positive steps towards a more sustainable future. But all those good intentions could go to literal waste without the infrastructure in place to see it find its rightful, (natural) home.
As part of our Sustainability series, we outlined our commitment to sustainability as well as providing a free eBook for all our followers on the “Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Packaging”. If you’re looking for more information on the feasible solutions for your packaging today, then we suggest you grab a coffee and settle in with our eBook.