PLA Plastic is the new kid on the block (relatively speaking) and is touted as the eco-friendly alternative to ordinary plastic. This article looks at what it is and considers its possible future in a world that is shying away from plastic waste.
I recently had the opportunity to hear about an initiative to introduce a new manufacturing plant in our small rural town. It would create new jobs and add more life into the place - the usual speech I know we've all heard whenever something new, shiny and expensive is proposed. But to be fair, our Mayor, who is facilitating the process, did explain as much as he knew about the production process and its impact.
I wasn't planning on it but ended up being curious enough to do some research - my bad because it got me thinking and that is always such a painful exercise. Pulling teeth would probably have been better as it would have been done and dusted in a jiffy.
In any case, I discovered that there is a lot written on this subject so I'll summarise some of it. But the real question is whether there's a future for this product in our world.
This is quite simple really. It is a plastic that is made from bio matter (such as corn or logs as is proposed for our backyard). They use some wizz-bang sciency type magic and convert the organic matter into plastic. If you're really keen on the big words, I refer you to this website - ALL3DP. I trawled through a number of sites but this page covers what it is, how it's used and issues relating to this material.
In a nutshell, this plastic is used in food packaging, healthcare and various medical devices such as screws and plates, construction, textiles and cosmetics. Its application is quite wide ranging.
The big selling point is that, unlike ordinary plastics which are petroleum based, this material is biodegradable. As the original source of the material is bio matter, a specialised commercial composting process will break it down so that it can be spread on your gardens - at least that's what the white coats tell us.
It all sounds really great; the stuff is versatile in its utility and breaks down to compost. What more could you possible ask for?
The problem isn't the plastic per se - it's the fact that the producers of this product have no end-to-end solutions. It is true that this plastic breaks down but it needs a commercial composting process to do this effectively. Not every place where this product is available will have such a facility and even if they do, access may be an issue.
It is also acknowledged that 80% or more may just end up in a landfill. It is true that it will break down over time - 100 years or more time that is. To quote an article in Scientific American "Indeed, analysts estimate that a PLA bottle could take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill."
Furthermore, what doesn't make it to a landfill will just end up as pollution somewhere. It seems to me that the plastic problem has just shifted track but is still headed in the same direction.
Let's step back and have a look at the big picture for a moment. There is a trend that has been building, especially over the past 10-20 years of so, for more eco-friendly and sustainable production. This trend is accelerating and, in my view, wont stall any time soon.
There is a greater interest in B corporation type structures where the entire life cycle of a product is considered - not just the bottom line. Organics is on the increase and there are so many places in the world today that are working to clean up their backyard and refusing to take someone else's rubbish.
Even in our own little rural backyard, the supermarkets have done away with plastic shopping bags. The fact that everything else on the shelves is still wrapped in plastic amuses me but change is happening and public sentiment is driving this change. The world is undergoing a massive shift in its consciousness in this regard (albeit a little too slow for some people).
In this context, "plastics" is a dirty word - biodegradable or not. Articles such as this one in Timesnext are indicative of where this roller coaster is headed. (I will fess up that my cousin is one of those featured in this article - just keeping things above board.)
The fact that PLA plastic has valuable utility is not in dispute. However, the overall market trend does appear to be against such enterprises. I don't have a crystal ball and most times I can't see past my nose. But there are indicators flashing and these are getting harder to ignore.
The key problem for the plastics industry, as I see it, is simply that they have no solution for handling the waste. If they shifted the numbers from 80% waste to 80% recycle, it might make a difference. This would require the industry to step up and ensure that they have a commercial composting facility in every place that their product is available and that such a facility was easily accessible. Such a solution may swing sentiment in their favour. But public sentiment is fickle and there are no guarantees.
There is an overall worldwide trend for sustainable and eco-friendly outcomes resulting from human activities and I see this trend accelerating. Gone are the days when we can just ship our waste to someplace else or simply ignore the pollution that results from what we produce. As such, we have to work out solutions that ride this trend because it is much much bigger than any one of us.
I'm not sure if the plastics industry (bio-friendly or not) has a future but indications are that it may be narrowly focused if it does. This means that if you can see it (such as in packaging), the public of the future may reject it. The fact that the plastic is biodegradable may not overcome the overall sentiment associated with the nature of the product. Even if the producers did come up with end-to-end solutions, the public perception of plastics is well entrenched and distinctions may be moot.
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