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The Biodegradable PLA Plastic: What You Need to Know

Marketed as "biodegradable plastic," PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) plastic has gained popularity and has become a potential alternative solution for reducing single-use plastic. However, there are still issues with PLA plastic: is it an ideal solution for our daily life and a perfect solution to the plastic problem?

The Biodegradable PLA Plastic: What You Need to Know

What is "PLA Plastic"? The Characteristics and Increasing Popularity

PLA is a bio-based chemical made from plant starch (ex., corn) and has become dramatically popular in recent years due to its "biodegradable" characteristic. This environmentally friendly feature sets it apart from conventional plastics, mainly derived from non-renewable sources such as petroleum and natural gas, and cannot decompose naturally.

In addition, adopting PLA plastic as a replacement for traditional plastics also indirectly reduces greenhouse gas emissions during the refining process of conventional plastics production. In this contemporary "energy conservation, carbon emission reduction, and environmental protection," PLA plastic has emerged as the preferred choice in the plastic decline market and has been dubbed "green plastic." According to the statistics,
the global market for biodegradable materials reached $6.16 billion in 2020, and it is expected to grow at an annual compound rate of 24.9% in the next five years. This growth is significant and cannot be underestimated!

The Biodegradable PLA Plastic: What You Need to Know

The Truth: Specific Conditions for Decomposition

Despite the promising outlook for PLA plastics, recent studies have revealed the hidden risks! For example, Japanese research has shown that PLA plastics must be buried in soil with a temperature of 55℃ or higher and humidity of 80% to 90% to decompose effectively within 6 to 12 weeks. These findings demonstrate that PLA plastics may not be as ideal as advertised by the media, which suggests that they can decompose in the natural environment.

Another study executed by the Research Foundation at California State University, Chico, in collaboration with relevant organizations, aimed to observe the degradation of PLA plastic samples in a simulated marine environment. Unfortunately, the results showed that the PLA plastic samples degraded only by 3% and 8% in 6 and 12 months. It indicates that although PLA plastic is technically biodegradable, the degradation process takes much longer if certain conditions are not met. The research results mentioned above have concluded that the full degradable speed for PLA plastic is much slower than the frequency at which human beings produce and use plastics. Consequently, the effectiveness of PLA plastic in mitigating the plastic pollution crisis is limited.

The Controversy: International Perspectives on its Viability

Depending on related research results, countries worldwide have begun re-examining whether "adopting PLA to replace plastics" is an appropriate solution for reducing plastic waste. Opponents of the use of PLA plastics agree with the research results and argue that using PLA plastics is ineffective in addressing the serious plastic pollution challenge. Furthermore, they believe it creates a false perception among the public that "products made from PLA can be casually discarded because they can naturally decompose," ultimately resulting in severer pollution risks.

Besides, proponents claim that there is a transition to entirely phase-out plastics. Moreover, PLA plastics' biodegradability and cost advantages can balance plastic reduction and economic development. They also suggest that the shortcomings of PLA plastics can be improved by developing new technologies to make them more suitable for reducing plastic waste.

The controversial topic of PLA plastics has caused divergent views and policies among countries.

  • 【Africa】Due to the severe disasters caused by plastic, this region became the world's first to prohibit plastic bags. The local government urgently requires bio-based materials such as PLA as substitutes to consider economic development.
  • 【USA】Strong support for PLA and other bio-materials, and it is believed that the shortcomings of these materials can be rectified through technology development, such as genetic modification.
  • 【Europe】PLA has been seen as a material that should eventually be phased out. However, its usage is temporarily permitted to avoid the massive supply gap created by prohibiting plastic products.
  • 【Australia】Single-use packaging products made from PLA have been banned.
The Biodegradable PLA Plastic: What You Need to Know

The Reality: Understanding the Real "Green Plastics"

Compared to traditional plastics, the production and disposal of PLA plastics have helped intensify pollution. However, it is not a perfect solution to end the plastic crisis. Therefore, the general public must understand the so-called "green plastics." It is also imperative to strive for better recycling efficiency, as this will ensure that PLA plastics can be used to reach their maximum potential.

Furthermore, more people are now dedicating themselves to innovative research and development. For example, some are working on developing enzymes to expedite the biodegradation of bio-based plastics; others are exploring alternatives to single-use plastics such as "100% naturally degradable" plant fibers. The latter characteristic of "taken from the earth, assimilated easily into the earth" is especially noteworthy. Through the collective efforts and intelligence of all individuals, we hope to successfully purify the earth and finally eradicate plastic pollution in the future!

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