Eco-friendly Packaging

PLA Packaging: The ultimate guide

If you deal with packaging in your day-to-day operations, you’ve more than likely heard about PLA. The emerging and innovative material has become incredibly popular (rightly so) and there’re many reasons to why it’s such a hot topic in the packaging world right now.

For those of you who haven’t heard about PLA packaging or are simply searching for more information on the topic, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s the ultimate guide to PLA packaging.

In this guide we cover the following topics:

  • What is PLA?
  • How is PLA made?
  • How can PLA be disposed?
  • PLA packaging advantages
  • Disadvantages to using PLA
  • PLA packaging products from Swiftpak
  • Is PLA the right choice for your operation?

What is PLA packaging?

Firstly, PLA stands for Polylactic Acid. It’s a new type of high molecular polymer material and is commonly known as corn plastic. PLA is made from renewable resources, is biodegradable and has characteristics similar to Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene (PE) and Polystyrene (PS).

There are many uses for PLA and the most recognised include the following:

  • Bottles
  • Biodegradable medical devices (screws, pins, rods, plates etc.)
  • 3D printing
  • Packaging

How is PLA packaging made?

PLA is a polyester made with two possible monomers or building blocks: lactic acid, and lactide. Lactic acid is produced by fermentation under controlled conditions of a carbohydrate source, such as corn starch or sugarcane, making the process sustainable and renewable. 

PLA can be produced by the direct condensation of lactic acid. However, this process usually results in a low-density form of PLA (not ideal). In order to produce high-density PLA, the lactic acid must be heated in the presence of an acid catalyst to form cyclic lactide. This is known as ring-opening polymerisation.

How can PLA packaging be disposed?

When it comes to renewable and biodegradable packaging, the disposal method(s) play a key part in the sustainability of the given product.

For PLA, there are two main methods of disposing:

1.  Compost degradation – Within the first 180 days of a PLA product’s life, it’s 100% biodegradable and can be composted to ensure sustainability. PLA will decompose into digestible polymer fragments in about 7 days at 60°C in a moist environment - a typical composting condition for a large composting operation.

2. Renewable energy recovery (incineration) – Because PLA doesn’t contain any chlorine atoms, so can be safely incinerated under controlled conditions without producing any dioxins (highly toxic chemicals). Although, as biodegradability is the primary motive for PLA and other bioplastics, incineration should be considered after compost degradation as the end-of-life option.

PLA packaging advantages

1. Biodegradability - A major advantage of using PLA for packaging is its biodegradability. With the sustainable process and raw materials used, PLA is an environmentally friendly choice for packaging applications.

2. Carbon reduction - Emissions of greenhouse gases produced during the manufacturing of PLA is lower than other plastics. In fact, the net greenhouse gas emission of the overall PLA production process could even be considered negative. How is that possible you ask? Well, carbon dioxide is consumed during the growth of corn.

3. Insulating properties – For packaging, PLA is commonly used as an effective insulator in order to control the temperature of goods. PLA insulation helps keep the temperature of an internal product around 4 degrees Celsius at an average room temperature of 25-30 degrees Celsius for up to 30 hours. Temperature controlled packaging is important for retaining the quality and credibility of both pharmaceutical and food products. For more information on temperature controlled packaging and to discover how Swiftpak can support your requirements, take a look at our temperature controlled packaging page.

4. Thermoplastic – PLA is a thermoplastic, meaning when heated at its melting point of 150 to 160 degrees Celsius, it will turn into a liquid. This means it can be re-purposed, set to cool and reheated again to form other shapes without degradation. This makes PLA a desirable material for recycling.

5. No toxic fumes or pollution – PLA doesn’t release any toxic fumes when oxygenated and has therefore become a very popular material for packaging pharmaceutical and chemical products as well as food and drink. Why? It’s extremely important that highly sensitive goods aren’t contaminated during storage and transit in order to protect both handlers and the end user.

On top of this, PLA is fully degraded into carbon dioxide and water through composting, meaning no toxins or harmful substances are produced and no pollution is released into the environment.

But how does PLA compare to other thermal insulate packaging materials? Find out in our PLA comparison blog.

Are there disadvantages to using PLA?

As you’re aware, PLA is compostable, which is great! And we touched on the required conditions for a successful compost above - 60°C in a moist environment for 7 days. So, how’s this a disadvantage?

Typical home composts usually don’t reach the temperature of 60°C. A normal temperature for a home-sized compost pile is around 40 to 50°C, meaning you should send your PLA to a commercial composting facility for the degrading process. However, PLA could still break down in your home compost, it will just take much, much longer to do so.

We’d be lying if we said PLA was a perfect material, it does have its downside. But for this one tiny drawback, you receive a whole load of advantages that are worth capitalising on.

PLA packaging products from Swiftpak

PLA is versatile and can be used to create different packaging products for certain requirements. From insulation pouches to bags and film, here are some examples of PLA packaging we offer at Swiftpak to help our customers provide safe and sustainable packaging.

PLA self-sealing insulation bag

Commonly used within the food and drink industry, PLA self-sealing insulation bags guarantee solid heat prevention while preventing condensed water from escaping. This is essential for keeping produce fresh from the point of packaging through to its point of delivery.

The outer layer consists of PLA and PBAT film with a full, needle punched PLA inner felt. The PLA self-sealing insulation bag is suitable for cases where refrigerated and normal temperature products are mixed and is 100% biodegradable.

PLA insulation felt with film

Like the self-sealing insulation bag, this product is primarily used to keep food products cool during transit. What differs from this product though is the flexibility the film offers, allowing for adjustment to fit with most carton sizes. PLA insulation felt with film is also 100% biodegradable.

PLA Insulation zip pouch

The PLA insulation zip pouch is not only 100% biodegradable, it provides the maximum balance between performance, handling, cost and provides extra value for businesses with high production lines. The easy and quick zip-lock closure reduces the packing process by 20-30 seconds, increasing efficiency and saving in operation costs. This particular PLA packaging product is commonly used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry.

PLA Zipper

A biodegradable zipper and zipper head with stable quality and performance. It’s a key component for zip bags or as a biodegradable closure mechanism for creating a fully biodegradable packaging product.

PLA – the right choice for your packaging operation?

With the extremely low volume of carbon emissions produced, 100% biodegradability and use of natural resources, PLA is a great material, particularly for the packaging industry.

PLA can be great way to adopt an eco-friendly approach to packaging for many businesses. There are several advantages to using PLA and the biodegradable material can be utilised in many ways to meet certain requirements, especially in the pharmaceutical & chemical and food & drink industries.

If you’d like to find out how PLA could help your business, or have any questions relating to PLA, contact a packaging expert at Swiftpak today. We’d love to show what PLA can do for you.