Why PLA is, in fact, a viable option

30Oct07

When I first started investigating PLA as a material, someone made the comment that it was “premature” as a material as it didn’t compost easily, and there was no industrial composting facility in New Zealand to deal with it.

That really annnoyed me. That sort of thinking – that the world of possibility is limited to what we have now – I find incredibly short sighted. To say the very least. And by following that sort of thinking we are bound to make no progress at all.

So I did a little more research. Firstly, I did a lot more research on PLA: Life Cycle Analyses of PLA versus other materials, a review of some of the large companies beginning to use it (DuPont, WalMart, Mark’s and Spencer, Tesco’s, BASF, Hycail amongst others) and a review of its positives and negatives. (There’s a folder on my desk.)

Its not perfect. But the history of patent applications for bio-plastics shows that this is a hot field. And the products are getting better all the time. PLA isn’t the be-all and end-all, its just a big step in the right direction. It does need to kept separate from PET, otherwise it causes big problems with recycling PET. And its made from corn, which could also be made into biofuel. (Currently 0.5% of the low grade U.S corn crop goes to PLA production.) But it can also be made from sugar beet, potatoes, wood pulp and various other starch producing sources. Which brings me to New Zealand, where Scion Research is making bio-plastics, like PLA, from wood pulp. It seems quite ideal for a geographically remote country like New Zealand to be able to produce its own biodegradable plastic, use it to package food, and then turn that same plastic into compost with which to fertilise the fields on which we can grow food for the nation.

Alternately, of course, we could continue to import plastic granules from the other side of the world, dig up vast tracts of the two small islands for landfill, and just stick it all into the ground, mixed in with a few organics to make a nice smelly mess that is useless!

Yup, if you ask me, it seems to make a hellava lot of sense. Produced locally, used locally, and turned into food locally. Just like a natural cycle. No waste. But hey – I could be misguided.

Which brings me back to the “industrial composting” aspect. As it turns out, after a bit of digging, there IS in fact an industrial composting facility in New Zealand, and furthermore, it has successfully composted PLA cutlery and packaging.

I was very pleased to get a positive email from Dr Peter Robinson, one of the Directors of HotRot, a locally based company that is exporting its composting technology to the rest of the world. Just a pity no-one here knows about it yet. (At the DINZ Sustainability Conference it was reported that the PLA bottles given out in the goody bags were interesting but useless because there was no industrial composting facility to deal with them…)

Funny what a little research can do.

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