How Biodegradable Is Pla?

Plastic pollution is a growing concern as the amount of plastic waste continues to pile up around the world. One potential solution that has gained popularity is the use of biodegradable plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA). But how biodegradable is PLA really?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: PLA is biodegradable under the right conditions, but may not fully degrade in normal landfills. Its biodegradability depends on factors like temperature, moisture levels, and the presence of microorganisms that can break it down.

In this comprehensive article, we will dive into the details of PLA biodegradability. We will look at how it is made, explain the conditions it needs to biodegrade, and discuss how its biodegradability compares to other plastics. We will also address some common questions surrounding PLA biodegradability and its effectiveness as an eco-friendly alternative to conventional plastics.

What is PLA?

PLA stands for polylactic acid, a type of polyester that is made from renewable sources like corn starch or sugarcane. It is a versatile material that has gained popularity in recent years due to its eco-friendly properties. Unlike traditional plastics that are derived from fossil fuels, PLA is derived from plants, making it a more sustainable alternative.

PLA in Plastic Products

PLA is used to make various plastic products such as food containers, cups, bottles, and bags. It has similar properties to traditional plastics, such as being transparent, lightweight, and durable. However, PLA has the added benefit of being biodegradable under certain conditions, which sets it apart from conventional plastics.

Biodegradability of PLA

One of the main reasons why PLA has become popular is its ability to biodegrade. When exposed to the right conditions, such as high temperatures and moisture, PLA can break down into its natural components, carbon dioxide and water, within a relatively short period of time.

However, it is important to note that PLA requires specific conditions in order to biodegrade effectively. It typically requires industrial composting facilities where the temperature, humidity, and microbial activity are carefully controlled. In these conditions, PLA can break down within a few months to a few years.

It is worth mentioning that PLA does not biodegrade as quickly in home composting systems or in natural environments like landfills. In these settings, the lack of optimal conditions can result in a slower degradation process.

While PLA’s biodegradability is a positive characteristic, it is still important to dispose of PLA products properly. Recycling facilities that accept PLA plastics can ensure that they are processed correctly, reducing their environmental impact.

For more information on PLA and its biodegradability, you can visit the website of the NatureWorks LLC, a leading manufacturer of PLA.

How is PLA Biodegradable?

PLA contains ester bonds that can be broken down by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a biodegradable polymer made from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugarcane. One of the key factors that make PLA biodegradable is its chemical structure. PLA contains ester bonds, which can be broken down by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. These microorganisms produce enzymes that can break the ester bonds, allowing the PLA to degrade over time.

It undergoes a process called hydrolysis when exposed to heat, moisture, and microbes

When PLA is exposed to heat, moisture, and microbes, it undergoes a process called hydrolysis. This process involves the breaking down of the ester bonds in PLA through the addition of water molecules. The presence of heat and moisture accelerates this process, allowing the PLA to degrade more quickly. Microbes present in the environment play a crucial role in the hydrolysis process by producing enzymes that help break down the ester bonds.

The PLA breaks down into lactic acid, which then further degrades into carbon dioxide and water

During the biodegradation of PLA, it breaks down into lactic acid, which is a naturally occurring compound. Lactic acid is further metabolized by microorganisms and transformed into carbon dioxide and water. This breakdown process is similar to the natural metabolic processes that occur in living organisms. The end products of PLA degradation, carbon dioxide and water, are both non-toxic and environmentally friendly.

This makes PLA compostable under the right conditions, unlike conventional plastics

Unlike conventional plastics, PLA is compostable under the right conditions. Composting is a process that involves the decomposition of organic materials in a controlled environment. PLA can be broken down by microorganisms in a composting facility, resulting in the production of nutrient-rich compost. However, it is important to note that PLA requires specific conditions to compost properly, such as the right temperature, moisture levels, and microbial activity. It may not break down as effectively in a home composting system, so it is essential to dispose of PLA products in designated composting facilities.

What Conditions are Needed for PLA to Biodegrade?

Biodegradable materials play a crucial role in reducing environmental pollution and promoting sustainability. Poly(lactic acid), or PLA, is one such material that has gained popularity due to its biodegradable nature. However, for PLA to biodegrade effectively, certain conditions need to be met.

Temperatures between 50-60°C are optimal for PLA biodegradation

PLA biodegradation is influenced by temperature. Studies have shown that temperatures between 50-60°C are optimal for the breakdown of PLA. At these temperatures, the rate of microbial activity increases, leading to faster degradation of PLA. It is worth noting that PLA can still biodegrade at lower temperatures, but the process may take longer.

Sufficient moisture levels above 50% are needed

Moisture is another crucial factor in PLA biodegradation. For PLA to break down, the moisture levels need to be above 50%. This ensures that the microorganisms responsible for biodegradation can thrive and carry out their metabolic processes effectively. In dry conditions, the biodegradation process may be significantly slower or even halted.

Active populations of microorganisms like actinomycetes and fungi

Microorganisms such as actinomycetes and fungi play a vital role in the biodegradation of PLA. These microorganisms produce enzymes that can break down the polymer chains of PLA, leading to its degradation. Therefore, the presence of active populations of these microorganisms is necessary for efficient PLA biodegradation.

Aerobic environments allow the microbes to breakdown the PLA

Aerobic environments, characterized by the presence of oxygen, are conducive to PLA biodegradation. The microorganisms involved in PLA breakdown are primarily aerobic, meaning they require oxygen to carry out their metabolic processes. In anaerobic conditions, the biodegradation process may be significantly slower or may not occur at all.

PLA typically takes 3-6 months to fully biodegrade in industrial composting facilities

In industrial composting facilities, PLA typically takes around 3-6 months to fully biodegrade. These facilities provide the ideal conditions for PLA biodegradation, including optimal temperatures, moisture levels, and active microbial populations. It’s important to note that the biodegradation time may vary depending on the specific conditions within the composting facility.

Understanding the conditions required for PLA biodegradation is crucial for maximizing its environmental benefits. By ensuring the right temperatures, moisture levels, and microbial populations, we can promote the efficient breakdown of PLA and contribute to a more sustainable future.

How Well Does PLA Biodegrade in Landfills?

PLA, or polylactic acid, is a biodegradable polymer that is commonly used in the production of various products, including packaging materials, disposable cutlery, and food containers. While PLA is marketed as being biodegradable, its ability to break down in landfills is a topic of debate.

PLA does not degrade well in normal landfill conditions

Landfills are designed to prevent the decomposition of waste in order to minimize the release of harmful gases into the environment. Unfortunately, this means that PLA items, which require specific conditions to biodegrade, do not break down easily in landfills.

Landfills often lack the necessary temperature, moisture, and microbial activity that are required for the efficient breakdown of PLA. As a result, any PLA items that are sent to landfills will likely remain intact for years.

Landfills often lack the necessary temperature, moisture, and microbial activity

One of the key factors that determine the biodegradability of PLA is temperature. PLA requires temperatures above 140°F (60°C) to degrade efficiently. However, the average temperature in landfills is typically much lower, making it difficult for PLA to break down.

In addition to temperature, moisture levels and microbial activity also play a crucial role in the degradation of PLA. Landfills are often dry environments, and the lack of moisture inhibits the biodegradation process. Furthermore, the microbial activity in landfills is limited, as the waste is compacted and buried, depriving the PLA of the necessary microorganisms that aid in the breakdown process.

Studies show very little biodegradation of PLA in landfill simulations over 2-5 year periods

Several studies have been conducted to assess the biodegradability of PLA in landfill conditions. These studies involved subjecting PLA samples to landfill simulations over periods of 2 to 5 years.

The results of these studies have shown very little biodegradation of PLA during the simulated time frame. In fact, the majority of the PLA samples remained intact, with minimal signs of degradation.

It is important to note that these studies are limited to landfill simulations and may not accurately reflect the actual conditions in landfills. However, they do provide valuable insights into the challenges of PLA biodegradation in landfill environments.

How Does PLA’s Biodegradability Compare to Other Plastics?

PLA is more biodegradable than traditional plastics like PET, HDPE and PP

When it comes to biodegradability, PLA (polylactic acid) stands out from traditional plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and PP (polypropylene). Unlike these conventional plastics, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, PLA has the ability to break down much faster.

In fact, PLA is considered to be a biodegradable thermoplastic, meaning it can be naturally broken down by microorganisms over time. This makes it a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics that persist in the environment for decades or even centuries.

It decomposes much faster than these conventional plastics if composted

When properly disposed of in a composting facility, PLA can decompose at a much faster rate compared to other plastics. Composting provides the ideal conditions for the microorganisms to efficiently break down PLA, turning it into humus-rich compost that can nourish the soil.

Studies have shown that under optimal composting conditions, PLA can completely biodegrade within a few months to a year. This is significantly shorter than the hundreds of years it takes for traditional plastics to degrade, making PLA a more sustainable choice for packaging and other applications.

However, PLA still takes longer to biodegrade than cellulose-based items like paper or cardboard

While PLA is more biodegradable than traditional plastics, it is important to note that it still takes longer to biodegrade compared to cellulose-based items like paper or cardboard. This is because PLA is a synthetic polymer derived from renewable resources such as cornstarch or sugarcane, whereas paper and cardboard are made from natural fibers.

Cellulose-based materials can be broken down by microorganisms more readily, resulting in a shorter decomposition time. However, PLA’s ability to biodegrade faster than traditional plastics still makes it a favorable choice for reducing environmental impact.

So while PLA is not as biodegradable as some organic materials, it is better than traditional plastic

Although PLA may not be as biodegradable as some organic materials like paper or cardboard, it is a significant improvement over traditional plastics. Its ability to break down relatively quickly under the right conditions makes it a more sustainable option for single-use items, packaging, and other plastic applications.

By choosing PLA over conventional plastics, we can contribute to reducing the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or polluting our oceans. It’s important to note that proper disposal and composting infrastructure are crucial for maximizing the biodegradability of PLA and ensuring its positive environmental impact.


In summary, PLA has clear advantages over conventional plastics in terms of biodegradability. Under the right conditions, it can fully decompose into harmless byproducts. However, it does not degrade well in typical landfill environments and still takes a significant time to break down compared to paper and natural fiber products. While PLA has its limitations, it represents an important step towards more sustainable and eco-friendly plastic products.

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