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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 that 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 certifications, or research what that meant, and why would you? That’s not your job. It says its 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.

So what does “compostable” really mean? The process of composting is an amazing thing that when done correctly has huge benefits to the environment. The idea of composting is to recycle 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!

These products are made from 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 these are the steps that need to betaken for this to successfully compost:

  • All of your PLA waste must be separated out 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.
  • 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.
  • If against all odds it makes it to the right facility, it has to be composted attemperatures above 140 degrees for at least 60 days. Most facilities only have30 day cycles, and they don’t run compost through twice.

As you can see, it is very unlikely 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 if the food packaging industry is a prime example of greenwashing.

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

What should you do about this?

If you’re a business owner, be wary of compostability claims, and if you want to use compostable products, be sure to implement the right composting practices. Alternatively, you can use products that are naturally degradable and designed to degrade in landfills.

If you’re a consumer, and you 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.

Sources: Fast Company, Berkeley, NRDC, 3D Printing Industry, Investopedia

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