FDR Memorial

FDR Memorial
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial - click on the image for larger view

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

PLA goes in the Waste Basket and Why You Should Bring Your Own (non plastic) Cup to the (fair trade) Coffee Shop

PLA is a form of plastic that is made from corn. Many local shops and stores now carry containers and cups made from PLA in an attempt to find a more environmentally conscious choice than conventional plastic. Regular plastic lives forever. (click here to learn more about regular plastic). PLA on the other hand is considered a compostable and biodegradable resource. It is often referred to as carbon neutral because is comes from carbon abosorbing plants. PLA can be made from wheat, beets, potatoes and corn. The current manufacturer of PLA, Natureworks, is owned by Cargill, the worlds largest corn merchant. Thus PLA is made from genetically modified corn.

There are definite upsides to
PLA. The manufacturer of PLA, Natureworks claims that producing PLA uses 65 percent less energy than producing conventional plastics and it generates 68 percent fewer greenhouse gases, and contains no toxins. Take note that PLA is considered COMPOSTABLE. This doesn't mean it will compost in your backyard compost pile. Well, it will eventually but it will take a looonnng time. In a commercial composting facility using a constant 145+ degree temperature PLA plastucs will completely compost in 45 days. There are only about 100 or so commercial composting facilities in the United States. In a landfill PLA takes anywhere from 100-1000 years to decompose. Still better than conventional plastic which NEVER goes away. Since PLA is made from corn it can be incinerated without the release of any toxic fumes.

The most important thing to know about PLA is that it is NOT RECYCLABLE. Every time someone throws a PLA cup into a plastic recycling bin it will contaminate the regular plastic recycling process. So do not put your PLA cup in the recycling bin. Your not doing Mother Earth or her inhabitants any favors by doing so. PLA when properly disposed of in the waste basket PLA is a step in the right direction but not a big enough step.

The bottom line is that consumers need to think more about the packaging that comes with all the stuff they buy. Choose products with less packaging and give your local stores and
restaurants feedback that you want less packaging. The best choice is to bring your own cup with you to the (local fair trade) coffee shop. When you have a choice, choose metal silverware instead of plastic and real plates or paper over plastic or styrofoam. If you don't have your own cup opt for paper over plastic. PLA is not the answer to plastic cups and mass consumption.

To learn more you can visit:
Corn Plastic to the Rescue, from Smithsonian.com
Alternatives to Petroleum Based Plastics

(Photo credit BEC, Courtesy Flickr)


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thanks for the link, Beth. And for the info. If it is true that PLA plastics do not contain toxins (why o why am I slow to accept that reassurance on a new product, I wonder?) then that by itself is a wonderful thing, and would justify substituting it for conventional plastics in some applications.

But, let's get real... as you point out, we're definitely better off bringing our own mugs! The toxins in plastic, though a horrible environmental disaster in themselves, are not the only problem with our overproducing, overconsuming society. We've got to cut back, not just swap in new technologies.

I know---you're way ahead of me, here: both in terms of changes in lifestyle and public witness, I suspect. But the main thing is that we're moving in the right direction. Hopefully, others will follow--or lead. I'm not fussy!


Beth Anne said...

Even though PLA has no toxins if we throw it in the recycling bin with all that plastic entire batches of plastic can become NON-recylable. So we really need to understand the difference and dispose of the stuff correctly.

Tim Dunn, Realtor said...

There are a lot of problems with PLA - If we made all of the plastic disposable items used in the world every year, it would take one hundred million tons of corn to make it. That would lead to mass starvation in the third world, as that represents at least 10% of the world's grain supply. Also, in landfills, PLA exudes methane when it decomposes-and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. It also takes a huge amount of diesel to grow, fertilize, ship, and process this corn. As a practical matter, it is also not recyclable. The alternative? Oxo-biodegradable plastics. See http://biogreenproducts.biz for full information. -Tim Dunn

Beth Anne Moonstone (& Family) said...

Thanks Tim for the wonderful information. I'll look more into this product.

The US produces 40% of all the worlds corn crop and a majority of it goes to feed domestic livestock. They some to edible crops (corn syrup etc.) and some to Ethanol. From the figures I have seen only a small portion of the US crop goes over seas and again this is to feed livestock not directly feed people. So perhaps with a few less cheeseburgers we could use some of the corn for other more useful things.

The bottom line is using plastic is NOT a good idea. It never goes away and we need to stop thinking that we can just throw things away. There really is no away.