By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.

What is PLA?

September 27, 2022
# min read
Dillon Baxter

Chances are that at some point you’ve come across a straw, cup, or other food packaging product that was labeled 100% compostable. You likely saw the claim, thought it was great, it was an eco-friendly product, and went about your day. 

Like most people, you probably didn’t read the fine print, look for any certification, or research what that meant, and why would you? That’s not your job. It says it's compostable, of course, it’s eco-friendly, right? Unfortunately, that compostable product you just threw in the trash will probably end up in a landfill and take centuries to disappear. 

The Horrendous State of Landfills Today 

Just what makes landfills such a horrendous contributor to environmental damage? Not only are landfills massive sources of rotting trash, but they’re also only getting bigger by the minute.

To understand how devastating landfills are to our world and future, you need to know some terminology. MSW is short for municipal solid waste and refers to day-to-day trash thrown away by most people. These types of waste include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Textiles
  • Rubber
  • Wood
  • Food waste
  • Glass
  • Metal
  • Plastic

A study by the EPA revealed a staggering 145 million tons of MSW were landfilled in 2018. That means literal mountains of rotting trash that create carbon emissions, bacteria, and breathing hazards. Just 70 million were recycled and a mere 25 million were composted. Is it any wonder that greenwashing platitudes aren’t enough?

Related: PFAS: What They Are & How To Remove Them

Why the Ocean is Facing a Grim Future

It’s not just landfilling that PLA damages. The ocean is currently facing a bleak future due to the irresponsible behavior of businesses. 

Here are some fast facts about the sea. Recent research has found the ocean as a whole absorbs at least 30% of our carbon emissions, damaging wildlife and plant life every single day. Three billion people depend heavily on the ocean for both food and career development, which means they will lose out significantly in just a few decades.

Even worse? It’s speculated there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Even if we don’t hit that number, that’s still too much damage. Non-stop pollution means countless marine species dying, the ecosystem becoming imbalanced, and humanity’s future looking very dour. 

Defining Compostability and Recyclability 

So what does “compostable” really mean? The process of composting is a fantastic thing that, when done correctly, has enormous benefits to the environment. 

Composting is recycling organic matter into fertilizer which improves soil health, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, recycles nutrients, and mitigates the impact of droughts. So composting is great, however, almost none of these products advertised as compostable are actually being composted.

Here’s the problem, imagine you own a restaurant. You want to stop using single-use plastic products to do your part in reducing waste. You google: “eco-friendly food packaging”. The top 10 results are all for compostable products. You order the cheapest one, it gets to your restaurant in 3-4 business days, and you forget about it and focus on the things that make you money like food and customer service. 

At no point in this process has anyone told you what needs to be done to compost the products!

Beige package sitting in the middle of a cardboard box with brown paper
Beige package sitting in the middle of a cardboard box with brown paper

What is PLA and Why is it Hard to Recycle?

These products use PLA (polylactic acid), which is a thermoplastic polyester made from fermented plant starch. In layman’s terms, it is a material made from corn starch that functions similar to plastic. 

PLA is commercially compostable, meaning if it ends up at a commercial composting facility, it can be broken down into compost if it is exposed to high enough temperatures for a long enough time. This just doesn’t happen, because steps need to be taken for this to successfully compost:

  1. All of your PLA waste must be separated from your regular waste. Any non-PLA material will ruin the compost. You must have a dedicated person to sift through your trash or set up a composting bin and hope your customers use it correctly. 
  2. Your waste must be shipped to a commercial composting facility that accepts PLA. There are very few of these facilities in America that will even accept PLA, as it is difficult for them to distinguish it from plastic. You have to do research and find a facility, then pay extra for shipping.
  3. If against all odds it makes it to the suitable facility, it has to be composted at temperatures above 140 degrees for at least 60 days. Most facilities only have 30-day cycles, and they don’t run compost through twice.

As you can see, it is doubtful that a PLA product will ever be composted correctly. The overwhelming majority of these products still end up in landfills, where they take centuries to degrade. The prominence of PLA in the food packaging industry is a prime example of greenwashing. 

We’re tired of talk and no action. Our mission is to create a sustainable world with recyclable all-purpose biodegradable products.

What is Greenwashing and Why is it Harmful?

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.

A recent 2020 study found that at least half of all customers today are actively interested in supporting more environmentally responsible businesses. This number is guaranteed to increase as issues like climate change and pollution become more well-known. Greenwashing slows down progress immensely by fooling customers into thinking they’re helping when they’re actually hurting.

What should you do about this?

If you’re a consumer and see a business using compostable products, ask them how they compost! It is likely they aren’t aware of all the steps they should be taking, and you have a great chance to educate them. 

Related: Supply Chain Issues? Here’s How Domestic Production Helps

How to Contact Businesses About Their Sustainability

Here are a few simple steps you can try next time you notice a business that claims to sell compostable or recyclable products. Your goal is to raise awareness and make it clear that your dollar will only go toward honest business practices.

Step #1: Check the Packaging for Specific Instructions

You can’t restore the environment without having the proper tools. Does the business you’re supporting have specific instructions for how to recycle their products? 

Look for instructions that state actions such as:

  • Cleaning off the product
  • Taking off lids, wrappers, or tags
  • Specific recycling facilities

Step #2: Reach Out to Businesses With Your Concerns

Businesses are eager to cultivate positive word-of-mouth with their customers. If you notice their packaging is missing important details – or their packaging isn’t actually compostable – let them know.

Sometimes businesses overlook recyclability because they don’t care. Other times they make simple mistakes and want to know how to improve. When you suspect a company is contributing to landfill waste or ocean pollution, reach out to them through their customer service line. You can easily find this on their website or social media account.

If your business seems to be doing the work to use recyclable and compostable products, double-check with them on how they compost them. Make sure they cite reliable recycling facilities and technology. Vague answers are no good!

Step #3: Share Your Frustrations With Others on Social Media

Staying quiet isn’t going to make our environment cleaner or safer. Sharing your concerns on social media is an excellent way to raise awareness and push businesses to act.

Use hashtags to help people find your posts and boost them. Repost any content that you think is helping the cause. The louder you are, the harder it is for businesses to slip under the radar.

Step #4: Your Dollar is a Powerful Tool

When businesses don’t want to listen to your voice, they’ll listen to your dollar. It’s time to do your due diligence and put your money toward businesses that are going the extra mile.

As stated above, there are a few steps that you can take to increase your chances of reversing the trend:

  • Do your due diligence and research a businesses values, goals, and contributions
  • Look for qualified certifications such as the USDA
  • Be skeptical of claims of 100% recyclability or compostability 
Bright blue beach with piles of litter sitting on the sands
Bright blue beach with piles of litter sitting on the sands

How Businesses Can Improve Their Sustainability Practices

If you’re running a business or considering starting one, it’s your responsibility to go the extra mile. Simply choosing the most affordable and ‘easy’ green product won’t cut it anymore.

Seek out product materials that don’t use PLA so you can confidently tell your customers to recycle them as usual. If this means you need to spend a little more money or take more time, then do so. A healthier planet is very worth it!

If you can’t use anything other than a PLA product, then make sure you have direct and accessible marketing. Put some space on your products, website, and blog to ensure your customers aren’t confused. Greenwashing is a bad look for both the planet and your brand.

Related: Hemp Plastic: 5 Advantages For Biodegradable Products

PLA Final thoughts

Put short, PLA is a thermoplastic polyester made from a type of fermented plant starch. While this may sound like an organic material, PLA is actually similar to plastic and hard to recycle.

Recycling PLA is time-consuming and takes several months to pull off properly. Only a few recycling facilities are capable of composting PLA products properly, so it’s up to both businesses and consumers to do their due diligence. 

If you’re a business, consider using PLA-free products. put your dollar and voice toward actually sustainable companies. 

We still have time to turn things around and take care of the planet that takes care of us.
Allow your business to stand out from the pack with biodegradable products. Contact us today to learn about our sustainable agave straws.