The Versatility and Advantages of Polylactic Acid (PLA)

A sustainable innovation in bioplastic materials: uses and advantages

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By Alex

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is an interesting innovation: a bioplastic with a high degree of environmental sustainability and great versatility. Let’s find out better what it is in this article.

What is Polylactic Acid (PLA)

Polylactic Acid (PLA), one of the first bioplastics introduced on a large scale, emerges from corn processing and stands out for its biodegradability, contingent on specific decomposition conditions. Serving as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics, PLA’s applications are expanding due to its renewable origin and compostable nature under suitable circumstances.

The production of PLA involves a fermentation process wherein microorganisms convert sugars from raw materials into lactic acid. Subsequent polymerization results in the formation of PLA, exhibiting properties akin to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used in food and drink container production. Notably, PLA’s advantage lies in its compostability under industrial conditions.

Properties and Characteristics of Polylactic Acid (PLA)

PLA exhibits notable moisture recovery, influencing its biodegradability. The material rapidly decomposes at temperatures exceeding 60°C and under high humidity conditions.

For instance, in a 60°C composting facility, a yogurt cup biodegrades in just 47 days. However, the environmental benefits diminish if PLA is recycled alongside traditional plastics.

Applications of PLA

  • Packaging: Due to its transparency and resistance comparable to conventional plastics, PLA is extensively used in food packaging, including bottles, transparent films, and containers.
  • Textile Fibers: PLA can be transformed into fibers for fabric production, suitable for clothing, upholstery, and nonwovens such as diapers or napkins.
  • 3D Printing: Renowned for its ease of use, low melting temperature, and reduced warping tendency during cooling, PLA is a favored material in 3D printing.
  • Medical Applications: Biocompatible PLA finds applications in medical contexts, such as absorbable surgical sutures, implants, and controlled drug release devices.
  • Objects: PLA is employed in the production of compostable tableware, cutlery, and glasses, presenting sustainable alternatives to traditional plastic counterparts.

Currently, 70% of PLA is utilized in packaging for various products like bread, milk, juice, water, perfume, detergents, fats, and oils. However, its low softening temperature renders it unsuitable for containing hot liquids. Ongoing testing explores its potential in other sectors, with Toyota experimenting with PLA blends for automotive interior trim and seals.

Nevertheless, challenges persist, such as high costs in the agricultural sector and suboptimal performance in construction applications.

However, the applications of polylactic acid in the IT world are more advanced. Fujitsu already produces injection-molded keyboard keys and computer cases, while Sony has started producing electrical equipment cases with 85% PLA.

Polylactic Acid (PLA)
A representation of the chemical structure of Polylactic Acid (PLA)

Advantages of PLA

  • Biodegradability: PLA is compostable under industrial conditions, meaning it can be turned into compost in an industrial composting facility.
  • Reduced environmental impact: By using renewable rather than fossil resources, PLA helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout its life cycle.
  • Safety in food use: PLA is non-toxic and can be used safely to contain food and drinks.

Disadvantages of PLA

  • Industrial composting: PLA requires specific composting conditions that are not always available or managed properly, limiting its biodegradability in the environment.
  • Durability and heat resistance: PLA has lower heat resistance than some traditional plastics, which may limit its use in some applications.

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