corn in greenfield

Why PLA is not the answer

Plastic has been one of the most popular packaging materials, especially for shipping and delivery, since it is the lightest possible packaging material. However, plastic waste has been a main topic of concern nowadays. PLA has been introduced as a renewable source that can function as a fertilizer after its packaging life. This new and trendy bio-based alternative to fossil-based plastic almost sounds too good to be true, but what are the facts?

What is PLA?

PLA (poly-lactic acid) plastic is 100% bio-based. It is made from fermented plant starch, often corn, and it promises to be free of toxics and carbon neutral. Based on these premises, it is considered to be a serious alternative for conventional plastics and experiences a rapid increase in popularity.

While looking at PLA’s production process, ‘crops of plastic’ needs to be cultivated to produce the fermented plant starch. These crops have to be converted into the required chemicals and this process still produces carbon emission.

How to dispose of PLA?

During the degradation process PLA breaks down into lactic acid, which is also found in milk. In order to know if this alternative is truly compostable, it is important to see if it contains the necessary certification. The EN13432 certification is the only way to know if the packaging material is truly suited for composting.

According to the European regulations, compostable material is not allowed to be larger than 2 mm for more than 10% of its’ original dry weight after 12 weeks of degradation. The drawback of this process is the same as for other biodegradable materials: it only breaks down in a specific controlled environment of 58°C. Since most countries haven’t developed the appropriate composting facilities, it is difficult to properly dispose of PLA plastics.

The biggest threat with this issue is that if PLA ends up in landfill, it’s missing necessary oxygen for the degradation process. When PLA breaks down in landfill, it may start to expel methane, which is 38 times more toxic than CO2. Concluding that PLA is only free of toxics if it’s properly disposed.

PLA as protective packaging

PLA falls into the category of biodegradable plastics if it contains the necessary European certification. However, even if it is truly compostable, it still has a couple of downsides as a protective packaging material. Compostable plastic has a limited shelf-life, which puts a deadline on the supply chain of the product. Moreover, it isn’t suitable for every application as it would quickly start to break down when wet.

Moreover, the fermented plant starch of PLA is often made from either corn or sugar cane, which are both essential food commodities. The rapidly gained popularity goes hand in hand with an increase in demand for non-food use of corn. This affects the global price of corn. So, while it may be a solution for the plastic waste issue, it contributes to the issue of food shortage in the less wealthier parts of the world. Is ‘solving’ one issue, but worsening another, really a solution?

Short recap of what you need to know about PLA plastics

At first sight, PLA may have promising features, such as its’ renewable character, low manufacturing costs and potentially non-toxic. However, the pros and cons of using PLA need to be weighed before investing in a short-term environmental claim. There is mainly a need of further development of the industrial composting infrastructures in many countries. As a packaging material it has a risk of being fragile and missing the point of protecting your valuable products.

FP International

At FP International we believe in protecting what matters most. We offer a wide range of innovative air cushions and packaging systems, which are 100% recyclable and protect your products during transportation and storage. Our packaging material is made on the premises of maximal protection with minimal material and handling costs. We do this by smartly using air. It makes up 99% of our protective packaging and just 1% is fully recyclable material.

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