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Polylactic Acid (PLA)-is It Really Environmentally Friendly?

Nov. 22, 2022

Read our PLA bioplastics guide to learn all about PLA material, including how it is produced, the environmental and economic advantages of PLA, and how it fits into the circular economy.

Polylactic Acid (PLA)


What are PLA bioplastics?

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a polyester derived from renewable biomass, usually from fermented plant starches such as corn, sugar cane, or sugar beet pulp. the environmental advantages of PLA bioplastics over derived plastics are measurable and significant.

How PLA is produced?

PLA is a polyester (a polymer containing an ester group) made from lactic acid and propylene glycol. Lactic acid can be produced by bacterial fermentation of a carbohydrate source under controlled conditions. In industrial-scale production of lactic acid, the carbohydrate source can be corn starch, cassava root, or sugar cane, making the process sustainable and renewable. In addition, the agricultural products themselves, such as stems, straw, husks, and crop residues such as leaves, can be processed and used as alternative carbohydrate sources. Residues that cannot be fermented can be used as a heat source to reduce the use of fossil fuel-derived hydrocarbons.

Environmental Advantages of PLA

PLA is a more environmentally friendly plastic option than conventional plastics. This is because PLA can biodegrade in 12 weeks under commercial composting conditions, whereas conventional plastics can take centuries to break down and eventually produce microplastics.

The manufacturing process for PLA is also more environmentally friendly than conventional plastics. According to studies, the carbon emissions associated with PLA production are 80 percent lower than those of conventional plastics.

PLA can be recycled because it can be broken down into its original monomers through a thermal depolymerization process or hydrolysis. The result is that the monomer solution can be purified and used in subsequent PLA production without any loss of quality. 

Disadvantages of PLA

PLA has many advantages, but also some disadvantages. These include the environmental impact on land and water, rather than the cultivation of crops and the use of chemical fertilizers.

In addition, PLA plastic packaging can be more expensive than traditional plastic packaging due to the number of steps required in the production process. However, as PLA becomes more widely available, efficiencies of scale come into play, which means costs can be reduced.

The production of PLA bioplastics has little to no impact on food prices or availability. And it enables a true recycling option, from plant to soil.

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