You’ve probably heard about starch-based plastics and how they are becoming a viable alternative for other synthetic plastics, like polystyrene. The popularity of starch-based plastics is increasing rapidly in the packaging industry, especially for food packaging where polystyrene is used quite often. To help you adapt to rising demand for starch-based plastics, here’s what you need to know about this new biodegradable material before you incorporate it into your packaging strategy.
What Makes up Starch-Based Plastics?
Starch-based plastics are made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is developed from fermented sugars that typically come from cornstarch. Any materials made with PLA are biodegradable, while materials made with polystyrene are not. This makes starch-based plastics a great alternative for companies who are concerned with sustainability.
Starch-based plastics do have some unique properties that help them compete with other synthetic plastics. Those properties include:
These properties allow starch-based plastics to be a comparable solution to your packaging needs, especially since they can be formed into a fiber and a film.
Starch-based plastics are reducing the carbon footprint of plastic packaging, but they also present some challenges regarding their recyclability. These innovative plastics are not recycled in the traditional way but are instead given to controlled facilities to be composted. When done correctly, they will break down into carbon dioxide and water.
PLA plastics cannot be composted in home setups because they require specific conditions in order to biodegrade properly. The composting process should take place over several months, but if the conditions are not ideal, it could take years to complete.
This presents a challenge for consumers getting PLA plastics to the right place, especially since there are barely over a hundred of these specialized facilities located in the United States. These plastics must be separated from other types of packaging that gets sent to traditional recycling facilities, which is an additional step many consumers won’t be willing to take. That means many starch-based packaging materials will still end up in landfills, which will not allow them to properly biodegrade.
Companies need to make an effort to educate their customers about the use of starch-based plastics in their packaging and how they can be recycled effectively.
Material and Energy Impacts
Companies who want to incorporate starch-based plastics can benefit from the affordability of the raw materials used to produce them. Unlike polystyrene, which is made from petroleum, PLA plastics are made from cornstarch. Corn is one of the cheapest raw materials available because it’s easy to produce. Petroleum prices can differ depending on the price of oil, which is more unpredictable than the price of corn. The manufacturing of plastic with petroleum also produces the risk of explosions, which is not a risk associated with the production of starch-based plastics.
In addition to cheaper raw material costs, the process of making starch-based plastics requires less overall energy compared to the process of creating petroleum-based plastics. It also releases fewer greenhouse gases during manufacturing, which is another environmentally-friendly benefit.
In conclusion, starch-based plastics are a strong competitor to synthetic plastics because they are biodegradable, easy to produce, and affordable. Compared to current packaging materials, starch-based plastics are far easier to recycle. The raw materials used to create starch-based plastics are also simpler to work with and available in abundant quantities. Plus, these raw materials will ultimately lower business costs because they are much cheaper than their counterparts, such as petroleum.
As starch-based plastics become more accessible in packaging production, they will continue to grow in popularity and be incorporated in unique ways across different industries. Companies have the responsibility of ensuring their consumers know how to properly recycle starch-based packaging materials if they are to truly push a strong sustainability agenda. Over time, the rising demand of starch-based plastics should be accompanied by more composting facilities to ensure consumers have plenty of opportunities to recycle their starch-based packaging materials.