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What is PLA?

Posted on 1/6/2021

in Eco-Friendly Materials

Corn in Field - Main Image

Welcome to the Green Paper Products Blog!

One of the questions we get all the time from our eco-conscious customers - What is PLA? We get questions like this and others so often that we thought it best to start our own blog so that we start to give more in depth answers to some of our FAQs or Frequently Asked Questions and provide some educational content about our business and industry.

We’ll also use this space moving forward to keep everyone updated about product features, industry news, company news and any new products we offer here at Green Paper Products. With that said - let’s get to it.

What is PLA? 

PLA is an acronym that stands for polylactic acid and is a resin typically made from corn starch or other plant based starches. PLA is used to make clear compostable containers and PLA lining is used in paper or fiber cups and containers as an impermeable liner. PLA is biodegradable, and fully compostable. It uses 65% less energy to produce than conventional oil-based plastics, it also generates 68% fewer greenhouse gasses and contains no toxins.

Unlike most widely used plastics, polylactic acid “plastic” is not plastic at all, and is instead a plastic alternative made from renewable resources that can include anything from corn starch to sugarcane. In the years since its inception, many more benefits of PLA have been discovered that make it a positive substitute to high-pollutant plastics. At Green Paper Products, we are constantly on the lookout for this substitute, as it is an ideal candidate to use in disposable products. 

The renewability of materials used to make PLA allows the end result to have a number of distinct advantages. 

Advantages of Using PLA

  • PLA requires 65% less energy to produce than traditional, petroleum-based plastics.

  • It also emits 68% fewer greenhouse gases.

  • Made from renewable and raw materials 

  • Compostable after use

  • Many Products are Made in the USA 

What is the PLA Production Process? 

The PLA product process begins with the fermenting of a carbohydrate source. As long as the core components are lactic acid or a lactide monomer, it is possible for this carbohydrate source to be a renewable substance such as corn starch or sugarcane.  

The end result is a product that has the same durability and rigidity as plastic without the use of non-renewable components. Unlike traditional plastics, however, PLA is made from compostable materials that allow it to break down completely after use rather than remaining intact.

Let’s take corn for example.

First, corn that’s been harvested is soaked and ground so that the endosperm can be separated from the corn gluten and fiber, then Enzymes are added to the starches in the endosperm, converting them into the sugar, dextrose. Next, lactobacilli bacteria is added to ferment those sugars into lactic acid, similar to the production of beer or naturally fermented pickles. This fermentation produces lactide molecules, which bond into long chains called polymers. The result of the process is pellets of poly lactic acid plastic, which can be processed into many different forms.

How is PLA different from Plastic?

PLA looks and feels a lot like regular plastic cups - the biggest difference obviously is the best one - IT’S COMPOSTABLE!! Being compostable means that it can break down completely into compost to help grow new crops to start the cycle all over again.

While PLA is recyclable, it cannot be recycled with other types of plastics because it has a lower melting temperature that causes problems at recycling centers. This means that you need to dispose your PLA properly!

How to Dispose of PLA Products

After use, many plastic products end up in landfills. We do not want this. This not only makes them unable to compost or degrade in an environmentally friendly way, but it also adds to the devastating effects landfills have on the planet. Disposing of PLA products in a standard trash can has the same effect as disposing of any other product: adding to the linear waste stream. 

Rather than discarding PLA products in trash, they should be composted, recycled, or taken to your local commercial compost facility. When commercially composted, the PLA products are able to break down completely in as little as 90 days. This way it does not end up in landfills or the environments of vulnerable species. 

What does that mean?

While typical petroleum based plastics can take thousands of years to breakdown, plant-based PLA plastics can be broken down in a suitable commercial composting facility within 45 to 90 days.

PLA plastic offers a stable shelf life, without degrading or disintegrating, but remains biodegradable, breaking down into carbon dioxide and water at temperatures greater than 140° Fahrenheit and when exposed to relative humidity of 90% or more for approximately 60 to 90 days.

Looking to dispose of your PLA products properly? Use this composting center tool to find a commercial compost facility near you! Or if you want to recycle it with other PLA materials use a recycling center tool to find a recycling center that accepts PLA.

Is PLA Food Safe? 

Yes! It is completely safe to consume food from PLA containers. Studies have found that the only release that occurs when food comes into contact with PLA containers is a small release of lactic acid. This ingredient is natural and very common to find in many other foods. 

Green Paper Products with PLA

Here at Green Paper Products, we offer many different products made with PLA. We have compostable cups, portion cups, cutlery like forks, knives & spoons.

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