As more people are becoming aware of (and using!) biodegradable alternatives to plastic but they don’t always have a place to compost them, some have argued that they are just another wasteful product – especially because they can’t be recycled. Unlike our bagasse products (a by-product of the sugar cane industry) which can easily be home composted, PLA is designed to break down in optimal composting environments. Commercial composting facilities are ideal as these controlled environments maintain heat, moisture and micro-organism levels. The rate at which PLA biodegrades in your home composting bin will depends on optimal levels of these factors. So PLA WILL biodegrade into compost but it will take longer than bagasse products or other organic kitchen waste.
If a PLA bioplastic cup is discarded on the side of the road it will last a fairly long time as this is not a composting environment – perhaps up to 1 year depending on the environment. However, at the end of its lifecycle the cup will biodegrade into its natural components. In contrast, a petroleum plastic cup may last up to 50 or 100 years depending on the environment before it degrades – but there is no end to its life cycle. It will always be plastic.
Green Home has been leading the biodegradable revolution here in South Africa and we are committed to reducing our dependency on petroleum-based plastic products. We have always maintained that plant-based alternatives represent an important and essential shift in the history of consumerism!
Without a doubt, petroleum-based plastics are problematic for the environment as they are made from a non-renewable resource that contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. There have also been recent concerns regarding chemicals from plastic leaching into our food and the detrimental effect it could have on human health.
We believe that biodegradable plastic is a viable solution for packaging that is more sustainable and less harmful to the planet and to human health than conventional plastics. Research has shown that the manufacture of biodegradable plastics have a smaller carbon footprint even when you take into account the pesticides and fertilizers and industrial equipment that is used to produce the material. Existing products are not the final word on biodegradable alternatives and neither are they the ultimate solution. Ongoing research is looking at developing products which are less farming-intensive (and therefore use less water, equipment etc.) like switch grass and algae.
The challenge ahead is to create systems that can manage compostable materials. As an individual or a community you can start by creating a compost system at home or in your workplace. By supporting the biodegradable packaging industry you are supporting a cradle-to-cradle system. So get active and lobby your local municipality and recycling service to include composting!