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is pla biodegradable or compostable

2023-11-21

PLA, which stands for polylactic acid, is a biodegradable and compostable material that has gained popularity in recent years. It is often used as a substitute for traditional petroleum-based plastics due to its eco-friendly properties. In this article, we will delve into the question of whether PLA is truly biodegradable or compostable.

To understand the biodegradability and compostability of PLA, it is essential to first distinguish between the two terms. Biodegradability refers to the ability of a material to break down naturally through biological processes into harmless substances such as water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. Compostability, on the other hand, refers to a specific type of biodegradability that occurs under controlled conditions, where organic waste is combined with heat, moisture, and oxygen to accelerate the decomposition process.

PLA is considered biodegradable because it can be broken down by microorganisms present in the environment. These microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, produce enzymes that can break down PLA into simpler compounds. The process of biodegradation depends on various factors, including temperature, moisture, and the presence of microorganisms. Under optimal conditions, PLA can degrade within a few months to a few years.

However, the biodegradability of PLA may vary depending on the specific environment in which it is disposed. In industrial composting facilities, PLA can decompose within a few weeks under controlled conditions. These facilities provide the necessary temperature, moisture, and oxygen levels to promote rapid decomposition. Industrial composting is a highly efficient process that turns organic waste, including PLA, into nutrient-rich compost that can be used in agriculture and horticulture.

Although PLA is biodegradable, it should not be confused with being inherently compostable. Compostability requires specific conditions that may not be present in all disposal environments. For example, if PLA is thrown into a regular landfill, where conditions are anaerobic, with limited oxygen and moisture, the biodegradation process may be significantly slower or even non-existent. In these conditions, PLA may take several years or more to degrade, similar to other types of plastics.

To address this issue, there are now certified compostable PLA products available in the market. These products meet specific standards, such as the ASTM D6400 or EN 13432, which define the requirements for compostable materials and packaging. Certified compostable PLA products are designed to break down within a certain timeframe and specific conditions, such as those found in industrial composting facilities.

It is crucial to note that even certified compostable PLA products require proper disposal practices to ensure their compostability. It is recommended to dispose of them in municipal or industrial composting systems rather than in regular waste streams. This allows for the controlled conditions necessary for composting to occur efficiently.

In conclusion, PLA is indeed biodegradable, meaning it can be broken down naturally by microorganisms. However, its compostability depends on the specific conditions in which it is disposed. Under optimal conditions, such as in industrial composting facilities, PLA can compost within a few weeks. Nevertheless, it is essential to use certified compostable PLA products and dispose of them correctly to ensure their proper compostability.