Polylactic acid plastic PLA is really biodegradable

A global misconception? The bioplastic plague

Many consider bioplastics to be an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional plastic. But what does “organic” actually mean? Do you have to dispose of it in the yellow sack or in the organic waste bin? Or can you just throw it into nature? Where is bioplastic made and how sustainable is it really?

Bioplastics are very trendy. From coffee mugs for on the go to plastic bags in the supermarket, everything should be made of bioplastics today. Current production figures show how great the demand for the supposedly environmentally friendly plastic is.

Where does all that bioplastic come from?
Just a few years ago, bioplastics hardly played a role, but as early as 2018 2.11 million tons of them were produced worldwide. The majority is used for the production of packaging and plastic bags. More than half come from Asia, with Europe and North America in second and third place. South America plays a special role. Although relatively little bioplastic is produced here, most of the raw materials for bio-based plastic come from there. It is mainly sugar cane, which is grown in huge quantities in Brazil. Sometimes under catastrophic conditions for people and nature.

Production and use of "BIO" plastic

Most of the bioplastic comes from Asia. Then Europe and the USA follow.

How environmentally friendly is bioplastic?

There are two types of bioplastic - bio-based and biodegradable.

The former is obtained from renewable raw materials such as corn or sugar cane. However, this does not automatically mean that it can also be broken down in the environment. On the contrary: most bio-based plastic packaging is just as non-biodegradable as its counterparts made from conventional plastic. In addition, even the production of bio-based plastic has a heavy impact on the environment: To grow plants, you need huge monocultures in which pesticides and harmful fertilizers are used. The soil, water and air are so polluted that animals and plants lose their habitat.

Biodegradable plastic is designed to decompose completely after use. Sounds great, but only works in theory. If at all, biodegradable plastics only break down in industrial composting plants, where high temperatures and extreme humidity prevail. But it doesn't usually get that far: Most composting plants are not designed for biodegradable packaging and sort them out as contaminants. Because even under ideal conditions, the decomposition takes weeks and months - much longer than is composted in conventional plants.

On the garden compost at home or even in the wild, biodegradable substances disintegrate much more slowly, hardly faster than normal plastic. Degradable plastic is also completely unsuitable for recycling. It cannot be processed together with normal plastic and disrupts the sorting processes.

Production and degradation of PLA (Polyactic ACID / Polylactic Acid)

Polylactic acid (PLA) is one of the best-known representatives of bio-based plastic.

What can consumers pay attention to?

Using bioplastics to protect the environment is obviously not the way to go. Consumers should therefore shop consciously and fundamentally question organic claims.

We achieve significantly more for the environment and the climate if we buy products with plastic-reduced packaging made from recycled material, pay attention to the recyclability of plastic packaging and enable a functioning recycling system through correct waste separation.