Packaging, especially plastics, has come 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 percent less energy and generates 63 percent fewer greenhouse gases.
In a controlled environment PLA will naturally break down, returning to the earth, and so it can be classified as a biodegradable and compostable material.
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.
Composter facilities are also hard to come by. Specific numbers for UK facilities are difficult to find, just one sign you might struggle to locate exactly where and how can recycle your PLA plastic bags.
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.
PLA plastic has its limitations. It can only handle items up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit and so when exposed to higher temperatures can change shape.
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 producing fantastic compostable packaging when the consumer doesn’t even know how or where to dispose of it? That beautiful PLA lined paper bag 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.