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PLA straws - is it a good alternative to plastic straws?
In the era of intensified debate on the harmfulness of plastic and more and more scientific research on its impact on the environment, manufacturers and consumers began to look for alternatives to this deadly material. And they found: bioplastic . The name itself sounds promising and the prefix used indicates an earth-friendly material. But is bioplastic really ecological and harmless? Is it a revolutionary panacea for environmental problems plaguing our planet?
WHAT IS BIOPLASTIC?
Bio plastic, or PLA (polylactic acid), is a plastic made of raw materials of natural origin . More specifically, it is a biodegradable polymer called polylactide (or polylactic acid) obtained from organic materials such as corn or sugar cane. It is most often used in the food packaging industry, in medicine (dental implants, sutures, catheters), as well as for the production of bottles , straws , dishes and textiles.
Interestingly, packaging, bottles, disposable tableware or biodegradable PLA straws do not differ in appearance from their plastic counterparts - they are just as transparent and shiny. Even the symbol with which the bioplastic is marked on the packaging is misleading: 7 Other, meaning other. However, other materials, including plastics, are also found under the same designation.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF BIOPLASTIC
The pro-environmental trends that have intensified in recent years and the increase in human ecological awareness result in the fact that the interest, and thus the production of bio-plastics, is constantly growing. In 2016, approximately 4.2 million tonnes of PLA were produced. It is estimated that in 2021 this number will increase to 6.1 million tonnes.
The most popular argument of bioplastic supporters for its use is the reduction of the carbon footprint. According to estimates, about 8% of the extracted crude oil is used for the production of plastic. By producing PLA instead of classic plastic, we actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, corn and sugarcane are renewable resources, spread relatively evenly around the world, while oil reserves are concentrated in a few key regions. Increasing the production of biomass for the purposes of bioplastics contributes to the flourishing of the agrarian economy and the balanced economic development of rural areas.
However, there are two sides to each medal, and this is also the case here. PLA's opponents argue that the production of bio-plastic increases environmental pollution with artificial fertilizers and reduces the amount of land used for food production. The debate continues: should corn be used to produce plastic in a food-scarce world?
Recycling of bioplastic is the topic that arouses the most controversy and emotions in the debate on its raison d'être. PLA is completely biodegradable only under certain thermal and humidity conditions. Depending on the type of polymer used for the production of a given bio-plastic, PLA waste is treated in three ways: it ends up in a landfill, it is recycled with plastics or it is sent to the so-called industrial compost.
Industrial composting involves heating a bioplastic to a temperature that allows the microbes to break it down. Without the right temperature (above 70 ° C) and humidity (at least 70% RH), PLA will not self-biodegrade and will remain in a landfill or in a home composter for the next centuries. And if it ends up in the sea or the ocean, it will behave like plastic - over time, it will break down into millions of microparticles that will threaten the marine fauna and flora for decades. That is why it is important to have a bioplasticcompost in a specially designed industrial installation. Otherwise, PLA will not differ in its action from ordinary plastic. Unfortunately, this is currently happening. There are still a shortage of specialized composting plants, and there are not enough plants to process PLA.
The problem with recycling bio-plastic appears already at the stage of throwing it away to the garbage by the consumer. Bioplastic, despite its theoretical biodegradability, should not go to a bio container, but to a container for selectively collected waste. In practice, most users place it in a container with plastics, which only extends the segregation process and increases its costs.
According to environmentalists, bioplastics without the appropriate recycling infrastructure and knowledge of how to handle this material can become an example of the so-called greenwashing , commonly known as "eco-friendly" , that is, arousing in consumers the wrong belief that a given product is organic .
PLA: YES OR NO
So is bioplastic eco?
Taking into account the present condition of the Polish municipal infrastructure and the waste management system, it can be said that PLA is potentially ecological, but in practice, unfortunately not yet. On the one hand, the production of bioplastic does not require the use of as much fossil fuel as ordinary plastic, its production emits much less greenhouse gases, and the raw material from which it is made is 100% renewable. On the other hand, however, as long as there are no appropriate bio-plastic composting systems in Poland, PLA will be as harmful to the environment as plastic. Therefore, if something looks like plastic - it definitely is and it does not matter whether it comes from organic or synthetic materials. And that's why it's better to avoid it and find another solution.
Fortunately, however, the world is full of creative people who are looking for a healthier, greener and less environmentally harmful alternative to plastic and PLA. One that degrades in water, does not overload the ecosystem and does not interfere with world food production.