In honour of Earth Day on the 22nd of April, we are taking a special interest in the environmental impact that plastic cards make on our planet. Let’s discussthe affects of PLA (corn) plastic cards on our environment.
A growing concern in the world today is our impact on the environment, and a new consciousness has arisen. A desire to be environmentally consciencious is filtering into many consumer based decisions – including our use of plastic cards.
At first glance, the newest kid on the block – PLA – otherwise known as “corn plastic” seems like the best alternative. In fact, a large retail chain in South Africa has adopted this as their plastic of choice, marking themselves as environmentally friendly. However, a few very important details have been overlooked, and this warrants a closer look.
First, the claim that the card is “biodegradable” needs to be called into question. Polyactic Resin – PLA is a byproduct of industrial lactic acid, which is derived from corn. Advocates of PLA claim that it is compostable into a fertilizer, which is true. What isn’t widely known is that it requires very special treatment – not the type that comes from your garden’s compost pile, or your local landfill. The Smithsonian magazine recently reported
“ PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin, pit or tumbling barrel. It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks has identified 113 such facilities nationwide—some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations—but only about a quarter of them accept residential foodscraps collected by municipalities.
Moreover, PLA by the truckload may potentially pose a problem for some large-scale composters. Chris Choate, a composting expert at Norcal Waste Systems, headquartered in San Francisco, says large amounts of PLA can interfere with conventional composting because the polymer reverts into lactic acid, making the compost wetter and more acidic. “Microbes will consume the lactic acid, but they demand a lot of oxygen, and we’re having trouble providing enough,” he says. “Right now, PLA isn’t a problem,” because there’s so little of it, Choate says. (NatureWorks disputes that idea, saying that PLA has no such effect on composting processes.) In any event, Norcal says a future PLA boom won’t be a problem because the company hopes to convert its composters to so-called anaerobic digesters, which break down organic material in the absence of oxygen and capture the resulting methane for fuel.’” An additional article on PLA’s recycle-ability can be found at Oregon Live
Second, one must take into consideration the use of a food source to supply a consumer product. An excellent article at Guardian UK states “Bioplastics compete for land with biofuels and food crops. About 200,000 tonnes of bioplastics were produced last year, requiring 250,000-350,000 tonnes of crops. The industry is forecast to need several million acres of farmland within four years.” With growing movements toward biofuels, and now food based plastics, what will come of our food crops?
Third, concern has been raised about the liklihood of emissions of greenhouse gas, methane. Again the Guardian reports:
“Concern is mounting because the new generation of biodegradable plastics ends up on landfill sites, where they degrade without oxygen, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This week the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration reported a sharp increase in global methane emissions last year.
“It is just not possible to capture all the methane from landfill sites,” said Michael Warhurt, resources campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “A significant percentage leaks to the atmosphere.”
“Just because it’s biodegradable does not mean it’s good. If it goes to landfill it breaks down to methane. Only a percentage is captured,” said Peter Skelton of Wrap, the UK government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme. “In theory bioplastics are good. But in practice there are lots of barriers.”
In theory, PLA is a biodegradeable plastic, made from a renewable resource, however, it is clear, that at this time, this is not the most environmentally friendly plastic available.
While no perfectly “Green” plastic seems to exist at this stage, PET is a plastic worth considering. An acronym for poly (ethylene terephthalate), PET is a thermalplastic polymer of the polyester family containing the chemical elements of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It’s carbon foot print is quite comparable to the carbon foot print of all other cards whether considered green or not. (see article at Creditcard.com) In addition it is a enviromentally friendly plastic, is recyclable and does not create harmful gases or pollute the environment.
As technology, and consumer cries for greener products continue to grow, more products producing less of a demand on our environment will become more commonly available. Until then, be sure to take in the entire picture, and make an informed decision. Be wise, not just smart!