The Myth of Plant Based Food Packaging - PLA Plastic From Corn and It’s Darker Side.

By Gary Stokes

There seems to be an awakening happening right now, an awakening that is long overdue. In a world that’s on a one way trip to human-induced destruction, environmentalists, scientists and school children are screaming at the tops of their voices in the hope of getting the rest of the population to wake up from their consumer driven comas. The Plastic Revolution is upon us, and as every day passes, more and more people are coming out of their trances to take back control of their individual actions.

As is common with all eco changes in society, there is money to be made somewhere, industries to be created and people to be manipulated and exploited. Some of these companies are unscrupulous and unethical, others just paint a picture and let you fill in the blanks. There is an old saying, never ASSUME, as this makes and ASS of U an ME!

Plastic is an incredible invention. Used in the right applications it has been revolutionary and invaluable, yet sadly “the most intelligent beings on the planet” use a material that can last for centuries, to make items that we need to last only a few minutes, and we are now seeing the negative side of this insanity as our world around us is choking on plastic.

But wait……an answer has arrived. Rather than changing our irresponsible, throw-away lifestyles there is an alternative that will allow us to continue! PLA plastic. It looks like plastic, feels like plastic and has pretty much all the same qualities that makes plastic so attractive to packaging companies. We are now seeing Corn Plastic/Plant Based Plastic in every supermarket and all hip restaurants here in Hong Kong as well as globally. Why? Because they want to do the right thing in most cases.

Sadly good intentions are being exploited by greenwashing companies that are selling the labels and buzzwords to companies that are genuinely trying to do the right thing. Many in the food and beverage sectors are switching their takeaway packaging to a corn based “faux plastic” made from PLA plastic. Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a biodegradable thermoplastic aliphatic polyester derived from renewable resources such as corn.

Bio-degradable…..Not Exactly?
PLA plastic may break down within three months in a “Commercial Composting Facility”, an industrial facility that is heated to above 50 degrees celsius and fed a steady diet of digestive microbes. However, if you put PLA products into a landfill that has little to no light or oxygen, a plastic cup or salad box made from PLA could take anywhere between 100 years to 1000 years to decompose! Not exactly what you had in mind when you saw the words bio-degradable on the packaging right?

Most of us buy food and beverage items in PLA and think we are being responsible, however in most countries the infrastructure is not in place to handle PLA. Most of our PLA waste does not reach an industrial composter, so they just got to landfill where they do not degrade and contribute to our rapidly filling landfills.

Don’t just take it from me, here is what leading UK Based PLA Food Packaging company ‘Vegware Hong Kong’ had to say about it in a recent email conversation that I had with them;

VW: To let you know a little more a Vegware, we are the only completely compostable food packaging brand operating globally. All of our items are made from plants, low carbon, food safe, and of course compostable.

GS: I saw some reports that this PLA plastic can only be compostable in industrial composter’s as they need the higher heat, yet I don’t think we have here in Hong Kong right?

VW: At the moment there are no industrial solutions for composting in Hong Kong.

VW: As Vegware items are made from plants, not plastic, they can be thrown right in with the food waste.

GS: Our food waste goes out with the general waste (MSW Municipal Solid Waste) and I’m guessing that must go to landfills? Will this be an issue or can it bio-degrade there?

VW: “Yes you are correct, in Hong Kong at present all MSW goes to the landfill. Our products are designed to break down under composting conditions (warmth, moisture, microbes, oxygen). In landfill, conditions are actually designed to prevent materials breaking down. When organic materials break down in landfill they emit methane, which is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and is a major contributor to climate change. We understand that unfortunately, in some situations where a closed loop solution is not available, our products will end up in landfill. PLA does not break down in landfill, meaning it doesn’t contribute to toxic gas emissions.

So Vegware Hong Kong are selling a product that is 100% compostable which is true. However they also know very well that there is no industrial facility in Hong Kong to compost their product in the manner it was designed to be eco-friendly. They are also aware that because of this, Vegware products will be heading straight to landfills where they will not biodegrade. Are they telling their customers these facts?

Contamination
Another serious issue with PLA plastic products is that they are being mixed with regular oil based (PP), (PET) plastics to go for recycling, most people cannot tell the difference or have not been made aware that PLA must not be put in the plastic recycle bins. Recycle facilities cannot sort the PLA from the oil based PP so are therefore sending any contaminated plastic batches that were destined to be recycled to the landfill, and we all now what happens there with PLA, 100-1000 years taking with it oil based plastics that conscientious people wanted to recycle.

“PLA is not currently recyclable in conventional plastic recycling, therefore you should not put PLA in with your plastic recycling as it will serve as a contaminant.” – Vegware HK

How many in the public or waste management industry can tell the difference between a PLA beer cup or a PP beer cup? Chance of PLA plastics becoming a contaminant in HK is high to very high! Chance of it ending up in landfill, almost a guarantee! Therefore still contributing to our almost full landfill issue.

Promotes GMO Corn
Much of the corn based PLA uses corn from a GMO source, therefore the use of PLA promotes genetically modified corn seeds, something that most environmentalists are fighting hard against. The largest producer in the world of PLA plastics is NatureWorks in the USA who are a subsidiary of Cargill, the world’s largest provider of GMO corn seeds.

“The plants grown for Vegware’s PLA are from North America. At this time growing practices in North America are a mixture of GM and non-GM. As a result, we cannot guarantee that no GM corn has been used in the production of the PLA that goes into our products.” – Vegware HK

Yet sadly almost all the “green” restaurants and many others, supermarkets and even the big beer companies and coffee shops have fallen for this PLA greenwashing stunt. Even some of the NGO’s have been promoting it as a great solution to Hong Kong’s increasing trash crisis? Yet in reality it may be making matters a whole lot worse. The only benefit is that it is not using oil, but that is about it! PLA is contributing to oil based plastics being diverted to landfill rather than being recycled. Any oil based plastic that was destined for the recycler may now be redirected to landfill for being contaminated with PLA.

PLA continues to promote the throwaway society that we so desperately need to escape that is filling up our landfills.

Solutions
Stop using throwaway, single use plastics period, no matter which plastic they are made from! If you have to take away food, bring your own reusable container, or better yet dine in and unwind for a moment.
Insist that the HK Government overhaul our recycle streams to enable citizens to actually act responsibly, extend our range of recyclable categories from the glass, paper, plastic and metal to cover food waste/compostable and build industrial composting facilities to handle PLA.
If you must use single-use takeaway items, ensure that they do what they say they do and go where they say they are going after use. Use products from FSC paper or BAGASSE a product made from sugar cane fibres that do biodegrade wherever they might end up. Ask your favourite restaurant to source a fully biodegradable packaging.
Do a little homework and make sure you are doing the right thing, if in doubt, ask!

Summary / Disclaimer
Companies such as Vegware and others I do believe have all the right intentions and are definitely part of the solution, however without the Government infrastructures in place they are falling short of what they claim and misleading an uninformed public to believe they are doing right for the planet whereas the reality is not the case.

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