What is PLA Plastic?

The field stretches for miles and the tall stocks gently blow in the breeze. They are waiting to be harvested, but these stalks will not be used for human consumption or even livestock. This stalk is part of a new generation that will be used as a renewable resource.

This is not a new concept, as we have seen Brazil using sugar cane to make ethanol, lessening their dependence on fossil fuels. Other countries are exploring and using alternative energy such as: geothermal, wind, biomass, solar energy, etc.

That is why it is only natural that the disposable foodservice industry would follow course, and enter products into the marketplace that would leave less of a carbon foot print.

What began as an experiment has now turned into a large scaled plant and laboratory at NatureWorks. Their CEO Marc Verbruggen said, “PLA will give you lower carbon footprint, lower energy use, because you’re using renewable feedstock – that is clearly a positive aspect.”

How do these plants that were standing in the field become straws, utensils, food containers, plastic cups, etc.? The process basically begins when the plants are harvested and milled to extract the starch. Enzymes are then added to the starch changing it to dextrose, which is a simple sugar identical to glucose. This sugar is put into huge fermenters to ferment the mixture into lactic acid, a colorless syrupy organic acid. This acid is now converted through a proprietary process into lactide and finally into polylactide pellets. The pellets look like little beads that are sent to manufacturers where they make plastic sheets that will eventually turn into food disposable goods.

“I saw the potential for PLA plastic and how it can lessen the carbon foot print, and I wanted to offer this product to our customers. Now that we are seeing over one hundred twenty plastic bans springing up across the country, this product, that we were already carrying, is an eco-friendly alternative.”

– CEO Alan Yu of Lollicup® USA, Inc.

Products using PLA plastic are gaining popularity in the market. CEO Alan Yu founded Lollicup® USA, Inc. and started their eco-friendly line Karat Earth™ about ten years ago. He said, “I saw the potential for PLA plastic and how it can lessen the carbon foot print, and I wanted to offer this product to our customers. Now that we are seeing over one hundred twenty plastic bans springing up across the country, this product, that we were already carrying, is an eco-friendly alternative.”

The plastic bans on disposable products, that are gaining momentum nationally and internationally, are in response to the incredible amount of waste that disposables cause. For example, the U.S. uses five million straws daily. This amount would fill one hundred twenty-seven school buses every day. Another example is plastic utensils. The U.S. throws away an estimate of six million tons per year. You could line up garbage trucks from Los Angeles to New York three times.

It is through these innovative ideas that the incredible amount of waste can be reduced. PLA plastic is an innovative biobased product. Biobased is defined by the United States Secretary of Agriculture to be a product that is made from a renewable resource, including plant, animal, marine, and forestry materials. So basically, what was once standing in a field became a product and then can return to the field, starting the process all over again.

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