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The New Environmentally-Friendly (?!?!) Plastic

>> Wednesday, July 2, 2008


This photo is from the USDA and is therefore public domain.

There is a new plastic (well not that new) on the market and it's gaining popularity. This plastic is made from corn and touts its biodegradability. The material is polylactic acid and it has been known about for over a century. It is only now gaining popularity due to another wave (similar to the early 90's) of eco-consciousness.

While this new plastic does have a few things going for it (a renewable resource and, in principle, compostable) there are a few things a lot of people haven't really studied or answered.

The pros:
  • Regular plastics use an average of 200,000 barrels of oil a day to produce our demand
  • Corn is a renewable resource and the plants help offset the amount of carbon produced in the plastic's manufacture
  • Plastics take up 25% of dumps by volume
  • PLA (polylactic acid) is compostable within 3 months at a controlled composting facility
  • It costs less than $1.00 to make a pound of PLA (see here)
  • Generates less air pollution to make
The cons:
  • PLA takes much longer to compost in a bin or even in a landfill
  • There are only 113 controlled compost facilities nationwide... only a quarter of these facilities accept residential scraps
  • PLA must be kept separate from other plastics to keep it from tainting their recycling process
  • Estimates for this breaking down in landfills are anywhere between 100 and 1,000 years (see here)
  • Cannot survive temperatures of 114 degrees Fahrenheit
Possible cons (of the controversial type)
  • Made of highly genetically modified food
  • Is using a food product to make non-food stuffs while people are going hungry
  • Still supports single use and disposables still adding to landfills
So it seems that the pros and cons are evenly matched and there are some controversial issues that are brought up... but I guess at least it is a start in the right direction. At least there is a push for biodegradable containers.

The biggest manufacturer of PLA in North America is NatureWorks. Go check out the website and tell me what you think!

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