To PLA or not to PLA

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Editor’s Note: Carrotmob is a form of consumer activism that invites businesses to compete in order to win a mob of customers. But everyone wins, because the extra money the winner makes goes toward things like improving their energy efficiency. Usually the business who promises the largest percentage of revenue from the event wins, but this Carrotmob was done a little differently. Each contestant explained what they’d do if they won, and what they were currently doing around sustainability, and the general public voted, actually choosing the one who had already shown the greatest commitment to sustainability. Epicenter wanted to get some feedback from the public around what type of to-go containers to use.

What is the most sustainable type of take-out packaging?

Ah yes, the burning question that keeps many an environmentalist tossing and turning well into the night. On the one hand, PLA, aka “polylactic acid” comes from plants, not petroleum, so it must be good, right? But which plants does it come from? And what part of the plant? Is it waste being upcycled? Is it replacing food crops? It must be good, right, it’s not petroleum!?

Epicenter Café, being a very conscientious Carrotmob winner, wants to be sure they make the right choice. They also want your input, sage readers. So I present to you the options, because even the Green Café Network does not take an official stance on this ever-evolving topic. There is an increasing array of options for eco to-go containers.

fritataWhile Epicenter already encourages people to stay and enjoy their meal or coffee amid their wonderful ambiance, they know that sometimes you simply have to eat at your desk. Hopefully artistry such as this frittata will survive the trip to the office! So I present to you a selection of eco packaging, all of which claim to be competitively priced. We leave it to you to decide what issues matter most to you when considering your take-away packaging.

According to Patagonia, the company long recognized as one deeply committed to sustainability, Corn PLA is “…a technology that may irrevocably alter the balance of life.” Now that’s a heavy charge to weigh on a material so many of us want to believe is better than plastic. Basically, the 2001 article explains that the only real reason they don’t like corn PLA is that at least 30% of the corn used is genetically engineered. At the time that was written, corn wasn’t yet claiming to be the holy grail of sustainability and thus pricing it out of reach for over 2/3rds of the planet’s populace.

But this is about food packaging, so why is corn PLA better than plastic? (In the US, due to our government subsidies, corn is much cheaper than other dextrose sources such as cane and beet sugar) Well, the first argument is that it reduces our dependency on oil. Which matters, since we will run out at some point. Patagonia is able to use recycled plastic, but the FDA approves recycled content for food packaging on a case-by-case basis, as the technology develops, to ensure food safety and not hinder innovation.

This blog post lists the pros and cons of corn PLA, which comes from the kernels, not the cobs. You can read more about it from the primary US manufacturer, Cargill.

So what are the alternatives?

misc_food1This article from Ecopreneurist January 2008 touts packaging made from sugarcane waste.

The founder of the company touted, Stalk Market, explains what he’s doing to make his products as sustainable as possible.

Here’s a 100% recycled PET that’s recently been approved by the FDA: PPI The good thing about this, is it’s turning non-biodegradable waste into something useful.

I was hard-pressed to find articles about potato-ware, but according to a manufacturer in New Zealand, it’s made from waste starch, not the potatoes we actually eat. This distributor doesn’t specify what type of vegetable starch they use, but it’s in the US: Vegware

So what do you think? Go to the SF Carrotmob blog poll to vote.

Image Courtesy dailylifeofmojo via Flickr under Creative Commons license.


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5 thoughts on “To PLA or not to PLA

  • Whenever I read about biofuels and biological feedstocks for industrial processes like the production of plastic, I have to ask myself whether the product will make use of a closed system of minerals by utilizing “waste” products as inputs and finding a 100% useful or compostable form for their waste.

    I agreed with the suspicious tone of the article, but I wish it had mentioned the fundamental problem with most agricultural feedstocks: they are made using oil. Just because something is a plant doesn’t mean it is oil-free. On the contrary, if something is a plant, it is more likely that it DOES use tons of oil in the form of tractor and transport power and synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers. In other words, plants and biofuels are not only not always green, but are in fact usually not green.

  • Whenever I read about biofuels and biological feedstocks for industrial processes like the production of plastic, I have to ask myself whether the product will make use of a closed system of minerals by utilizing “waste” products as inputs and finding a 100% useful or compostable form for their waste.

    I agreed with the suspicious tone of the article, but I wish it had mentioned the fundamental problem with most agricultural feedstocks: they are made using oil. Just because something is a plant doesn’t mean it is oil-free. On the contrary, if something is a plant, it is more likely that it DOES use tons of oil in the form of tractor and transport power and synthetic, petroleum-based fertilizers. In other words, plants and biofuels are not only not always green, but are in fact usually not green.

  • Dear concerned, and Dear author,

    Energy impact and CO2 potential green house gas emmision is measured by LCA, and these are favourable to PLA versus PET.

    In relation with cane pulp molded, I can say that both can have their place, it is not possible to make films and specific kind of materials (bottle, materials taht go to the freezer, trays for meat, etc.) with cane pulp molded materials

  • Dear concerned, and Dear author,

    Energy impact and CO2 potential green house gas emmision is measured by LCA, and these are favourable to PLA versus PET.

    In relation with cane pulp molded, I can say that both can have their place, it is not possible to make films and specific kind of materials (bottle, materials taht go to the freezer, trays for meat, etc.) with cane pulp molded materials

  • As a snack food manufacturer we are struggling with the right packaging for our product and read the same article from Patagonia “The Wisdom of Waiting”. Once we read that piece we looked more into PLA and have decided not to use PLA. Your right, their is a lot of information available out there to make an “informed” choice. We are currently testing a revolutionary bag film that just received FDA approval. We have our fingers crossed that the shelf life testing will be a success.

Comments are closed.