Is PLA environmentally friendly?

What is PLA and the manufacturer's declarations

PLA (polylactide) is a plastic, often referred to as bioplastic, which is an alternative to the most common PET. PLA is gaining in popularity, for instance in the production of hot sealed packaging — its properties include very low water absorption, so it provides excellent insulation and is also safe in food packaging.

According to the manufacturer, PLA is an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics due to its compostability and lower environmental production cost.

The controversy – Finnish Environmental Institute (SYKE) study

While greener production methods are not disputed

— PLA may be produced from corn, sugar beet, potatoes or sugar cane (although petroleum can also be used for synthesis), the biodegradation of PLA is more controversial.

In the second half of 2019, the Finnish Environmental Institute (SYKE) published the results of a year-long study, which found that film made from PLA hardly decomposed after a year in water. One of the researchers explained this by stating that PLA can only be composted efficiently in industrial conditions that provide adequate temperature and enzymes.

Optimal conditions for PLA disposal

PLA is poorly biodegradable in backyard composters, where it can take up to 60 years to decompose. To be fully biodegradable, it needs industrial conditions: high temperature (above 70°C) and humidity.

Is PLA environmentally friendly?

The environmental value of PLA mainly depends on the local waste management system – specialised composting facilities guarantee fast and efficient biodegradability. In backyard or non-specialised composting conditions, PLA is more problematic.

In the environmental assessment of this material, however, we should keep in mind the significantly lower environmental cost and carbon footprint of the production processes.

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