PLA “Biodegradable” Plastics: Too Good To Be True



The uprise of sustainable living and the demand for responsible goods which reduce one’s environmental footprint have opened up a new market of items sold under the guise of being eco-friendly. In just the past three weeks, social pressures to ditch single use plastic straws have culminated in some of the worlds biggest corporations: McDonalds U.K. and Starbucks pledging to remove plastic straws from their stores by 2020.


Our opinion on PLA

As a consulting firm dealing mainly with marine related clients in the tourism industry, reducing the reliance on plastic has been a priority from the get go. We often see that bars and hotels ask us how they can switch from traditional petroleum based plastics to ‘biodegradable’ alternatives. Even though many are well intentioned in trying to create the positive change needed to save our oceans and ecosystems, their plastic alternatives sometimes fail when integrated into their business practices. This is the reason why we are so skeptical about the the motives and realities behind companies like Starbucks, whose big announcements make for perfect publicity stunts, but lack the substance and vision to genuinely reduce their environmental impact. The effort that Starbucks is making by ditching their plastic straws covers up a more alarming problem, the same amount of plastic will be used in a different form: new plastic lids. Furthermore, their plan fails to call for change in their recycling and sorting policies, both of which are vital to properly managing the life cycle of the millions of tons of plastic they go through a year.


It is on the heels of these announcements that we are taking this week to evaluate PLA  plastics (Polyactic acid) and their misleading ability to be eco-friendly and biodegradable. PLAs have been heralded around the world as a renewable, plant based, biodegradable alternative to petroleum based plastics. Made from fermented plant starch, the plastic is said to be “carbon neutral” and “non-toxic”, and has been endorsed by many countries wanting to replace their reliance on petroleum products. With more and more countries joining the global movement to ‘ban the bag,’ PLA manufactures are positioning to become a big player in offering  “biodegradable” alternatives.


For those of us seeking to reduce our plastic consumption, PLA seems like a win for the planet. However, this is far from the truth. Critics and experts around the world have brought to light that the renewable alternative is not as environmentally friendly as one might have thought.


Problems with PLA

Diver with plastic bag

When taking a closer look into the effects of PLA plastics, many environmental issues reveal a complicated and unattainable path to zero waste. The biggest concern to PLA’s is the specific and necessary conditions that are needed for proper composting. Rather than being recycled with regular plastic materials, PLA must be sorted separately and brought to a ‘closed composting environment’. Only when sent to industrial composting facilities, it is essential that PLA plastics be heated to 140 degrees fahrenheit and exposed to special digestive microbes so that they can biodegrade. Compound these demanding conditions necessary for biodegradation alongside the enhanced responsibility on consumers to ensure their PLA waste is being sent to the proper industrial facility makes it practically impossible for the products to complete their life cycle as marketed and sold. In almost every case PLA plastics end up in landfills or our oceans. Properly processing PLAs to biodegrade is even less plausible if we take into account the fact that many big cities do not even have the correct industrial facilities for this process, let alone sorting infrastructure. As a result, the majority of PLA is discarded into landfills. In order for PLA to be a viable, “eco-friendly” solution, proper sorting and industrial composting systems must be put in place. Otherwise, you might as well consider them no different than traditional plastic.


Marketeers love to tout the biodegradability of the material as technically, they are not lying. The reality, however, is that the timeline for this process in almost every scenario of consumption will take several hundred years in an average landfill.


What do we propose? Across the board - consume responsibly and recycle accordingly.


Do you have any experience composting PLAs or other biodegradable plastics? Are you interested in new alternatives? Drop us your questions, tips, experiences and recommendations in the comments section below!

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