What is PLA and Why is it a Big Deal? 

Even through a tumultuous 2020, clear momentum continues to build that will carry Canada toward a federally-imposed ban on ‘single-use plastics’. Some of these products are on a fast track, and are slated to be banned by the end of 2021. These developments - along with a growing public awareness of the ‘single-use plastics’ issue - continue to have a significant effect on the market, leading to ever greater sales of compostable packaging and products.

Even prior to the emergence of Covid-19, it appeared that eliminating single-use containers and cups - so prevalent throughout the food service industry - would not be realistic. Therefore, as bans were originally being proposed there had already been a softening of the government’s stance to allow compostable packaging - itself intended for ‘single-use’ - to be allowed as a more sustainable replacement for petroleum-based packaging.

Many of these compostable products are made using plant-based materials that are formed into a type of ‘plastic’ that looks, feels, and performs almost exactly like petroleum-based plastics - but that can be composted and re-introduced to the soil without compromising soil health. The current form of this plant-based plastic is known as ‘PLA’ , as Polylactic Acid is the plant-based polymer from which it is made. PLA is arguably the most intriguing product to be developed by the packaging industry in decades; it is at the core of the transition to bioplastics, and has so far been used to produce many products - from bags, to straws, to disposable cutlery


Initial Successes of PLA and Work Still to be Done 

Many products and technologies have come along over recent years that pretend to be more environmentally responsible than their predecessors. As such, the prospect of ‘green-washing’ is a very real concern among those looking to improve their environmental impact through the choices they make. As compostable products gain in popularity, government and industry must work together to provide consumers clear and reliable information, so they may know and trust that they are helping to build a more sustainable future.  

While the current enthusiasm for PLA has mostly to do with its sustainability profile when compared to petroleum plastic, bioplastics play an important role in optimizing waste collection streams in two main ways:

1: ‘Recyclables’ That Don’t Get Recycled

Soiled packaging that enters the recycling stream cannot be recycled, rather it is sorted out and sent to landfill in vast amounts, which is of course an unsustainable practice. Because food soiling on compostable plastic does nothing to reduce its compostability - and in fact can enhance it - this issue can be effectively solved by greater use of compostable packaging.

2: Maximum Food Waste Diversion

Additionally, studies have shown clearly that allowing compostable food service packaging into the organics waste stream has proven to greatly increase the amount of food waste that is captured in organics collection, thereby diverting this food waste from landfill and preventing vast amounts of methane gas from being generated and released.

It is important to note in this regard that throughout North America, the official stated purpose of organic waste valorization programs has been to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. Methane gas, of course, is known to be a powerful greenhouse gas that is many times more damaging than co2. The greater food waste diversion rate generated by the use of compostable plastics, therefore, can be seen as an important contributor to the achievement of this goal.


Issues to Resolve with Compostable Plastic

In spite of the positive purposes for which it was originally developed, PLA remains a technology that is far from perfect. Because it is made from vegetable matter - using corn as its main input - if the entire food service industry were to switch from petroleum-based plastic to PLA, this would create a great strain on natural resources and land use. Simply put, while it may still show a greater sustainability profile compared to petroleum-based plastics, PLA - in its present formula - cannot scale up to widespread use and provide a ‘sustainable’ alternative to petroleum-based plastic without important adjustments to how it is made.


Further Development: From ‘PLA’ to ‘PLZ’

And yet, the popularization of PLA products continues to play a key role in the move away from single-use petroleum based plastics. It is providing an opportunity to prepared food producers to reassess their cost models, to accommodate a higher price point for a compostable packaging, (which have of course not yet reached the massive economies of scale of petroleum-based plastics), and to get their clients used to the idea of paying more for a more responsible product.

Cumulatively, the growing exposure to compostable plastics is helping to create a paradigm shift toward compostable packaging and providing a glimpse of what is technologically possible to all levels of consumers in the supply chain, as well as to policy makers. In this way, PLA therefore represents an important stepping-stone that can lead us to the best-practice technologies still to come.


As a concrete example of this, within the past 5 years the company that produces the vast majority of PLA in North America - NatureWorks LLC - invested a very modest sum of money to develop what at the time was being referred to as ‘PLB’. This material was to be made from captured methane, which could provide a remarkable solution to the existence of this powerful greenhouse gas. As market conditions at the time could not justify further investment, the project was soon put on hold indefinitely. Nonetheless, the fact of this experiment is of great importance, giving a glimpse of where the development and usage of compostable plastics could lead us.


Why Compostable.ca Sells PLA

While PLA is far from a perfect technology, the development of PLB -- a material that can be produced from captured greenhouse gas -- holds great promise in the quest to replace fossil fuel petrochemical plastics. More than anything, the promise of technologies like PLB is the reason that our company - which has a belief in and pursuit of best practices at our core - has chosen to sell PLA products at all.