Polylactic acid, also known as PLA, is a type of plastic made from renewable and organic sources like corn starch or sugar cane. Unlike most plastics that are derived from fossil fuels through petroleum distillation and polymerization, PLA is produced using biomass resources.

Despite using different raw materials, PLA can be manufactured with the same equipment as traditional plastics, which makes the production process cost efficient. PLA is the second most commonly produced bioplastic, and it shares similar characteristics with polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), and polystyrene (PS). Additionally, PLA is biodegradable.

How it made

PLA is a polyester made from fermented plant starch obtained from various renewable sources like corn, cassava, maize, sugarcane, or sugar beet pulp. The sugar present in these materials undergoes fermentation to produce lactic acid, which is then used to create polylactic acid, also known as PLA.

What is it used for in cosmetic packaging?

PLA materials have found various applications in the cosmetic packaging industry due to their unique properties. Here are some common uses of PLA in cosmetic packaging:

  1. Bottles and Containers: PLA can be molded into different shapes and sizes to create bottles, jars, and containers for cosmetic products such as creams, lotions, and serums. These containers can be transparent or colored, providing an attractive and eco-friendly packaging option.

  2. Tubes and Squeeze Bottles: PLA can be used to manufacture tubes and squeeze bottles commonly used for packaging products like shampoos, conditioners, and gels. These tubes are flexible, allowing for easy dispensing of the product, and they can be customized with different caps and closures.

  3. Compact Cases: PLA can be molded into compact cases used for packaging pressed powders, blushes, and eyeshadows. These cases are durable, lightweight, and can be designed with intricate patterns or branding details.

Is it environmently friendly?

PLA (Polylactic Acid) production requires 65% less energy and generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases compared to conventional plastics, making it more environmentally friendly. Additionally, PLA contains no harmful toxins. To maintain its eco-friendliness, it’s essential to follow the appropriate end-of-life disposal procedures.

There are currently four common end-of-life scenarios for PLA:

  1. Recycling
    There are two types of recycling: chemical and mechanical. Waste material may contain contaminants, but ployactic acid can be chemically recycled using thermal depolymerisation or hydrolysis. This process creates a monomer that can be used to produce virgin PLA. Another method is transesterification, which chemically recycles PLA to create methyl lactate.

  2. Composting
    PLA can be composted under industrial composting conditions. This involves chemical hydrolysis followed by microbial digestion, which breaks down the PLA.

  3. Incineration
    End-of-life PLA can be incinerated, producing 19.5 MJ/kg (8,368 btu/lb) of energy. The process leaves no residue.

  4. Landfill
    Although PLA can be sent to a landfill, this is the least environmentally friendly option. The material degrades slowly in ambient temperatures, making it less desirable for the environment.

Pros and Cons

Future of PLA

PLA offers several advantages over other materials. It is made from a recyclable and renewable resource, which makes it favorable for the future. Additionally, with the increasing oil prices, a corn-based plastic like PLA provides financial benefits as well. Despite these positives, PLA’s low melting point compared to plastics like PET has limited its applications thus far.

Over the years, the cost of PLA production has decreased. However, proper disposal is crucial as PLA requires specific composting facilities that can heat the material to 140°C for ten days. Although this process requires specialized facilities, it is much more preferable to sending used PLA to landfills, where it could take an estimated 100 to 1,000 years to decompose.

While PLA is not a miraculous substance, its lack of dependence on fossil fuels and reduced air pollution during production make it a promising material for the future.

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