An Intro to Eco-Friendly Plastics

An Intro to Eco-Friendly Plastics

Plastic is a term that can be used to describe a wide variety of materials, many with a vast number of purposes and strengths. In short, plastics are polymers, which are larger molecules made up of smaller ones called monomers. The monomers that combine to form plastic can be derived from a variety of natural sources, such as natural gas or oil. Newer technology has enhanced plastic-making capabilities to allow materials to be crafted from a variety of alternative and plant-based sources as well, including manufacturing waste/byproduct, corn, soy, sugarcane, rice, and more. 

Most plastics are derived from natural gas. Polyethylene is the most common plastic currently used, making everything from clear plastic food wrap and shopping bags to yogurt containers and milk jugs to automobile tanks. Polyethylene can even split and spun into fibers for clothing. By adjusting the chemical makeup of polyethylene through adding or removing other compounds, many various forms of plastic can be created. Polyethylene is the most common form of plastic found on our planet and is unfortunately one of the hardest to break down or recycle. Most forms of polyethylene will take hundreds of years to completely decompose.

In the last several years, many advancements have been made to create plastics that are in varying degrees more environmentally friendly. But the industry terminology can be confusing. Firstly, there are bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics. 

Bio-based plastics are structurally very similar to traditional, petroleum-based plastic, but are made from renewable resources, often biomass or waste. They can also be made of a blend of traditional and bio-based materials - you may have encountered plastic bottles that are manufactured with partially bio-based PET. Recycling these materials can be tricky so these products often wind up thrown away. This is where the conversation regarding biobased plastic, and really all plastic, gets most confusing - in many instances PET-based plastic items become a single use product, due to the vast differences in recycling facility capabilities. Although the footprint may be lower due to using secondary products in manufacturing the material, PET manufactured plastic items often still wind up used once and thrown away.

There are some promising new biodegradable plastic materials available. Here, we break things down further - compostable versus biodegradable. Essentially, biodegradable materials are any that will decompose in an uncontrolled environment due to naturally occurring organisms, whereas compostable materials must decompose in an environment controlled for factors like heat, moisture, or oxygen, like a recycling facility.

One of the most environmentally friendly plastic materials currently available is made from polylactic acid - commonly known as PLA. PLA can be made from a variety of naturally occurring materials like corn starch and sugar. This plastic is estimated to biodegrade completely in a natural, uncontrolled environment within about 80 years. The compounds used to manufacture PLA are all nontoxic and will break down into smaller, natural compounds. PLA can be recycled as well; however the vast majority of recycling facilities are unequipped to process it.

Environmentally friendly plastic material is a rapidly growing field. While our society's consumption of plastic continues to grow, we are beginning to see earth-friendly alternatives being produced, and recycling continues to become more advanced. At USA Sign Frame and Stake, we've successfully manufactured some of our posting stakes with PLA upon request. Looking for an environmentally friendly solution to your sign display problem? Reach out, we'd love to help find a solution for you.

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