By Kanchan Sharma

Plastic pollution is a global issue and is affecting habitats and natural processes, and reducing the ecosystems’ ability to adapt to climate change. The United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) has been stressing the need to assess environmental stressors, such as climate change, ecosystem degradation and resource use in the context of plastic pollution and pressing the need for systemic transformation to achieve the transition to a circular economy. This rising concern over climate change and the shift in public sentiment, combined with massive media coverage has led to widespread reforms of government policy at the global level for progressive intolerance towards single-use plastic. To align with global efforts, India banned single-use plastic items from July 1, 2022. This ban has led to an increase in the demand for sustainable plastic alternatives and has also created space for several plant-based materials in the market.

Bioplastics and PLA

Bioplastics are plastics produced from natural sources, such as corn and sugarcane, which might be either biodegradable or not. Around 60% of total bioplastic consumption in India is for packaging. Although the use of renewable resources certainly helps in reducing carbon emissions, other factors along the life cycle are offsetting these benefits. It is important to know that not all bioplastics are biodegradable and companies have been confusing and misleading the consumer with greenwashed advertisements. Polylactic acid (PLA — a thermoplastic monomer — tiny particles that make up plastic) is one such bioplastic that is made from corn starch and is being used in single-use products, such as bottles, straws and other packaging materials. It is compostable, but non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.

Global Scenario

Global efforts to reduce plastic waste have led to legislation limiting the use hard to recycle or compostable bioplastics, such as PLA along with regular plastic. With the goal to protect the environment and to lay the foundations for a circular plastic economy, where the design and production fully respect reuse, repair and recycling needs, the European Union (EU) acted first for this transition and banned single-use plastic products from 3 July 2021. This ban covered both plastic and bioplastic single-use products. Other countries too joined the move and soon Australia joined this global fight against plastic pollution and seven out of eight states banned single-use plastic and compostable bioplastics in early 2022 and pledged to work towards a regional circular economy for plastic packaging. Similarly, the USA has also banned single-use plastic straws derived from either petroleum or a biologically based polymer, such as corn or other plant sources. The New Zealand government has also announced a ban, phased in between 2022 and 2025, on the use of hard-to-recycle and single-use plastics. Other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have not yet posed a complete ban on single-use plastic, but are taking significant steps to reduce plastic pollution and companies in these countries are opting more for paper products to reduce plastic waste. Now it is important to understand why these countries have banned bioplastic-based single-use products.

PLA Straws: A heavily marketed greenwashed product

Plastic straws were included in the list of banned single-use plastics products because of their low utility and scope of being frequently littered around. This ban paved the way for paper- and bioplastic-based, such as PLA straws in the market, and soon PLA straws became one of the heavily greenwashed marketed products in the beverage industry. As a great imitator of traditional plastic, these are single-use and mimic traditional plastic straws in appearance and texture. PLA straws and paper straws have common functionalities, but they differ a lot in terms of their impact on the environment, and it forces us to ask questions, if offering PLA straws with the beverage pack is really a sustainable offering or just another example of industrial-scale greenwashing.

Confused Marketing and Mislabelling

With no noticeable difference between plastic and PLA straws, consumers don’t know the difference, and they feel they are using environment-friendly products that can be dumped in the regular recycling bin. The consumer is not a polymer expert, they remain confused about the usefulness of bioplastics, owing to inconsistent labelling, contradicting life cycle assessments and greenwashing.  Companies have not put enough effort into educating the consumer on what they are meant to do with them and everything is just put in the recycling bin. Products must have clear and standardised labelling that should indicate how waste should be disposed of, the negative environmental impact of the product and the presence of plastics in the products. Confused marketing and mislabelling of the product are leading to contaminated bioplastic recycling, composting and increased pollution, including more plastics in the environment, and more waste.

PLA Requires Specialised Industrial Composting

There are numerous reasons why PLA straws are not the right substitute for plastic straws. Companies cannot claim it as “biodegradable” (as defined by both American and European Standards) because it cannot biodegrade naturally in the biosphere, as a banana peel does. The products made of PLA require strict control of environmental factors. They need to be specially treated in industrial composting facilities at a very high temperature (at least 140°F/60°C) for many days (30–60 days), and fed special microbes to be properly biodegraded. Such industrial facilities are only a few even in developed countries, such as UK and the USA. India lacks such infrastructure for composting PLA, the existing composting units for PLA still exist in single-digit in the country and are just not sufficient. Segregating just straws out of the total plastic waste is the biggest challenge as the collection and management of plastics is still at the heart of the plastic pollution debate despite  Indian laws being relatively progressive in their approach to tackling this issue.

Non-recyclable

It is unfortunate to know that straws’ recyclability rate remains unknown in our country. The problem lies within our waste management infrastructure, waste producers and waste collectors are not aware of the recycling or composting opportunities and economics involved in straws, and even though they know, they are usually reluctant to put extra effort into straw separation.

Our waste management facilities usually recycle regular plastic waste, incinerate it, or place it in a landfill. While PLA straws are compostable, but they cannot be recycled. When PLA straws or other PLA packaging products are sent to recycling facilities in large quantities, there are possibilities that they can easily be mixed as it looks extremely identical in appearance to recyclable plastic. It can contaminate the waste stream, because PLA has a lower melting temperature that causes problems at recycling centres and can make other recycled plastics unsaleable. This way the entire lot of waste can be rejected and can end up in a landfill and pose a serious threat to the environment. Studies have found that it barely breaks down on landfill sites.

Harmful Emissions of Greenhouse Gas

Such incognisant disposal of PLA bioplastics in landfills is even more dangerous because, in the absence of oxygen, they release methane, a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. It is just not possible to capture all the methane from landfill sites and a significant percentage leaks into the atmosphere. Experts have also warned if PLA breaks into the soil, it can make the soil acidic and can create deficiencies of vital nutrients to plants, and thus can have a diverse impact on crop production in the long run.

Threats to the Marine Environment

Studies also claim that uncollected wastes can be drained into rivers as plastic wastes are ubiquitous in both cities and villages.  And we cannot ignore the fact that out of the 10 rivers that drain over 90% of the total plastic debris into the sea globally, there are three flowing through India – the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra. Straws are prone to making their way to our waterways because of their small shape and lightweight, they constitute a significant part of the beach litter. Unlike paper straw which takes close to 120 days for degradation in the marine system, experts say, PLA degradation is slower, and they may take close to a century to decompose naturally.This can actually worsen, rather than reduce, the problem of plastic pollution.

Conclusion

PLA looks good in theory but there are a lot of barriers in practice. Post the ban and to align with the widespread reforms of government policy at the global level, many companies have already switched over to sustainable options, such as paper straws, one of the best eco-friendly alternatives available, and go well with the ongoing need for non-plastic single-use straws. Even today’s consumers do not feel the usual reluctance to switch to eco-friendly options, they are willing to pay more for it. Overwhelming pollution-related problems have made them realise the impact of plastic and they have reacted positively to the single-use plastic ban. It is the responsibility of the government, companies and other stakeholders to create awareness, and knowledge should be spread about the harmful impacts of using PLA in food packaging products.

It is positive for the economy that bioplastic alternatives have gone mainstream and companies are attempting to be more environmentally conscious. However, this trend needs to be manoeuvred with care and words, such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘bio-based’ don’t necessarily mean better for the environment. It is time companies must stop promoting and selling PLA straws as environment-friendly products, take decisions beyond the cost point of view and choose the right straw to make a real difference in the environmental impact.

About the author:

Kanchan has been part of the food and beverage industry for the past several years and she can be contacted at knchn2@gmail.com