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 we’re missing anything. We’re 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 aof 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.
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…