plant-based plastics

Plant-based plastic could be the material of the future. But there are still some serious concerns…

Plastic is ubiquitous. There are few industries that do not make use of this durable, lightweight and inexpensive material. It has many benefits – reducing weight in cars, for example, saves gas emissions. But plastic is made of oil – to the tune of a billion barrels a year – and accounts for about 8% of the annual worldwide oil consumption (4% for the plastic itself, 4% for the manufacturing process). It is a toxic and burdensome necessity. One day, the world will either run out of oil, or what remains will be so difficult to extract that the price will become untenable.

PLA (polylactic acid – a.k.a. plant-based plastics) could be part of the solution. The industry is in its infancy but seems to hold much promise. Given the right encouragement, development and support, could this be our way forward?

The debate recently came up here at the office when a PLA product landed on our desk. It seemed promising. The material is non-toxic and made from a renewable resource. It’s also compostable, but only if you bring it to a special recycling facility. Would the majority of people bother? How accessible were these facilities? Ultimately we decided not to carry the product because we weren’t convinced it was in line with our overall mandate to carry as little plastic and synthetics as possible. In the process, we compiled a list of pros and cons to jumpstart a bigger discussion about the future of materials such as PLA.

Let us know if were missing anything. Were also curious to hear your thoughts. 


1) Encourages more crop planting, which adds oxygen into the atmosphere and creates a new source of income for farmers.

2) Uses less energy and produces fewer emissions during manufacturing than conventional plastic.

3) Derived from a variety of renewable resources, like sugarcane, wheat, corn, rice and even bacterial fermentation or kitchen scraps, which relieves urban waste issues.

4) No expensive retooling needed, since existing plastic production facilities can be used for creating PLA products.

5) Compostable (meaning, the product is non-toxic, supports plant life and can be broken down at the same rate as paper) in the proper facilities. Some varieties can even be composted at home.

6) Supported by a large coalition of heavy hitters, such as Wal-Mart, Ford, Coca-Cola and Nike, and overseen by the WWF, ensuring continual research and development.


1) Could be sourced from GMO crops, depending on the producer, since labeling is not required.

2) Replaces one type of waste with another, instead of reducing waste in general.

3) Uses arable land that could be growing edible (rather than industrial) food.

4) No system set up to separate PLA items from regular plastic – a necessary step in the composting process – and direct them to the proper facility.

5) Many PLAs still cannot be composted or biodegraded in conventional facilities, landfills or your backyard.

6) Labeling is inconsistent and still in the early stages of regulation. There are many varieties of PLAs, which require different types of processing for composting/biodegrading/recycling. For now, consumers need to do their own research.

We will likely always use some form of plastic. But if we could make it out of our kitchen scraps and then compost it right in our backyard that would start solving a lot of problems. Combined with finding ways to radically reduce our waste, plant-based plastics could be a step in the right direction with research and public education put into action…


* Ford experimented with soy, hemp and cotton based plastics in the 1940s. Although unsuccessful at the time, that research continues today.

* Other new materials continue to be developed, such as edible aloe-based bio-plastics and coatings. Biomimicry and “natural” plastics from agricultural and animal byproducts also offer promise.

* Check with your local composter to find out if they are set-up to handle PLAs. Although not required, some products have a BPI label which independently tests and certifies member products for compostability.

What do you think? 

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  1. Randy
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 11:56 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for weighing in on this. I've been wondering about the potential cons to plant-based plastics.

  2. Kris
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 1:17 PM | Permalink

    I don't understand the con of using GMO crops to make this. These plastics will not be consumed so the negatives associated with GMO plants is not an issue.

  3. Emma Segal
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 2:15 PM | Permalink

    Hi Kris,

    I included the GMO point in the Cons because there are some who have concerns about GMO in general. Not because the PLA crops will be eaten, but rather for issues like potential cross-contamination with nearby non-GMO crops that could be growing food. It’s an issue that continues to create a lot of debate. Hope that clarifies!

  4. bacunon
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 8:54 PM | Permalink

    Great article! GMO crops take a lot of pesticides/herbicides/insecticides/chemicals to grow, so that's an issue. Also, MOST plant-based plastic is sourced from GMO crops. Unfortunately, the pesticide industry is fueled by petroleum. I think the BEST question to ask is: do we NEED it? Take a look at products and ask, "Can this be made from a material other than plastic?" for the majority, the answer is yes! I've reduced so much plastic from my own life with help from Beth Terry's blog: My Plastic Free Life. As a huge fan of Kaufmann, I am SO glad that you and staff are having these discussions. I work in the waste/recycling/compost industry, and trust me, most of this PLA stuff is filtered out of the compost system after 3 months because it doesn't break down. It's filtered out and thrown away! I vote a resounding, "NO" on PLA for every day household use. I am not anti-plastic. I am against plastic in mainstream, commonly used items. Anyway, love this discussion, I could talk about it for hours. 🙂

  5. Kris
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 12:21 PM | Permalink

    Hello Emma, Thank you for your reply!

    I understand the concern some people have but my family runs a farm in the Midwest (central IL) and we grow a lot of GMO sweet corn. We use a lot less pesticides/herbicides/insecticides/chemicals because the seeds are already engineered to protect against possible problems. We do this because our farm is right on the Illinois river and we would like to prevent runoff which would contaminate any further the already heavily polluted river. There are several ways to grow crops: GMO free non organic, GMO free organic, GMO organic, and GMO non organic. Again thank you for this article, it was very informative!

    – Kris

  6. matt
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 3:57 PM | Permalink

    #6 under "Pro" is not a pro. It is, in fact, the tip off that PLA (in its current iteration) is a con (cf ethanol), a.k.a. greenwashing.

  7. Emma
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 8:20 PM | Permalink

    Hi Kris!

    It's great to hear from those who are at ground level, as it were. These issues are much more complicated than a few Pros and Cons, and there is a lot of gray area. It's lovely to know that you are employing methods with the intention of preventing contamination in your region. As there are a lot of debate about when and where to use GMO, my reason for including it as a Con was for those who wish to avoid it. There is no regulation for identifying it as coming from a GMO source, thus lacking in transparency. Perhaps GMO will be a topic for a different article…
    Thanks for your insight!

  8. Emma
    Posted July 10, 2014 at 8:32 PM | Permalink

    Hi Bacunon,

    I definitely agree with you on reducing waste, and the over-packaging of our consumer items. I hope you get a chance to check out the article about Unverpackt (link in the last paragraph of the article) – very fascinating project.

    PLA labelling is definitely the biggest challenge, to help avoid the exact situation you've mentioned. Hopefully we can develop an efficient system to direct it to the right waste stream soon. I have a feeling we'll be dealing with its existence for a while!

    Thanks for your input, and feel free to talk to us for hours… the conversation continues 🙂

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