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The Truth About PLA and "Compostable" Plastics

Polylactic acid or (PLA), is a so-called "bio-plastic" derived from fermented cornstarch. It is quickly becoming an alternative to the traditional petroleum-based plastics. But with its super slow biodegradability, inability to mix with other plastics in recycling, and high use of genetically modified corn, is this really the best solution? I think not.. ​​ Companies selling products made entirely out of or coated in PLA love to advertise their products as "100% compostable", but a lot of them fail to mention that this can only be done in a commercial composting facility heated to 140 degrees and fed a steady diet of microbes. However, when placed into a compost bin, or a landfill, analyst estimate that a single PLA bottle could take anywhere from 100-1000 years to decompose. In the great words of Kimberly Wilkins : "ain't nobody got time for that".

Since progress in America is as slow as these plastics take to decompose, there are currently only a few hundred commercial composting facilities across the US. Leaving most PLA plastics to end up in either the trash or recycling bins which brings us to our next problem: PLA cannot mix with petroleum-based plastics in recycling centers. When you place PLA plastics into your recycling bin you contaminate the entire bin sending all your recyclables to a landfill. Because recycling is a business, it would be far too costly to sort out all the PLA so instead, to the landfill it goes. So not only did you spend more money on these supposably eco-friendly alternatives, but you also just contaminated your entire recycling bin thus extinguishing your efforts to be green altogether, GREAT...

"Hey, but at least it's plant-based right?" WRONG. Although PLA is technically "carbon neutral" because it is made from a sustainable and renewable resource, almost all of it is derived from genetically modified corn. The long-term effects on humans and the earth of genetic modification are still unknown and could be bad. Very bad. Also, the many acres of land and gallons of water used every year to grow this corn could be put to better use such as growing food to help put an end to the world's hunger problem.

Although in theory, PLA is a better alternative to petroleum-based plastic, there are still many kinks that need to be worked out. Personally, I believe these plastics should only be sold in regions that have the proper facilities to dispose of them and brands that sell them should provide more information on proper disposal, but where's the money in that? Am I Right? Instead, it is up to us as consumers to educate ourselves and make more conscious shopping decisions. Obviously avoiding plastic altogether is the best solution, but should you need to purchase it only buy PLA products if you have the proper composting facilities in your area. Otherwise sticking to recyclable plastics is, unfortunately, the greener choice.


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