The Food and Beverage Industry is undergoing significant trend shifts, one of which is a move towards more environmentally-friendly packaging. Many customers are demanding less material waste in the supply chain area of the industry. Complicating matters in the international spectrum is the fact that every country has different regulations regarding what's acceptable and what isn't. The key, then, is to find forms of packaging which comply with more of these regulations and can ultimately make the supply chain aspect of the Food and Beverage Industry more streamlined. That’s where polyactic acid (PLA) comes into play.
Quick facts on PLA:
• It can be used for film, clamshell, bubble-pack, bottle and foam packaging
• It can be made via existing processing equipment
• It has better structural properties than some petroplastics, allowing 10-15% reduction in packaging weight
• It has a melting point of up to 240°C
• It can be blown with carbon dioxide providing volatile organic compound-free expanded PLA
Currently, much of the packaging for food storage is done via materials which are difficult to recycle or are not bio-degradable, and are often of questionable safety. PLA is unique in that it can be produced via renewable crops such as maize and sugarcane, is biodegradable, and is easily recyclable. Although PLA has existed for decades, it has recently garnered renewed attention as an American agricultural group has found a way to feasibly produce PLA commercially. Furthermore, a Korean institution claims to have found a more effective means to create PLA. If this is true, what implications might this hold for the food and beverage industry?
For one, widespread commercial production of PLA would greatly reduce the cost and logistics of making it, thus making it more attractive for food packaging corporations to use. Additionally, the environmentally-friendly side of PLA would allow it to pass regulations which may have been in place due to emissions standards. The use of PLA has, and will continue to expand to other areas of the food and beverage industry. PLA has been used to make disposable tableware and, in the United Kingdom, sandwich packaging, although overall, the market there is small.
While the transition may be slow, the move towards environmentally-friendly products is coming. Germany-based chemical company BASF has projected a 20 percent growth per year in the world market for biodegradable plastics. Major food retailers, such as Auchan and Delhaize are making the switch to PLA for the packaging of products in their supermarkets. As more and more countries establish and strive to meet emissions standards, the use of PLA and other biodegradable plasitcs will continue to grow. As methods of disposal become uniform across countries, it will also make the production and use of PLA attractive from the supply-chain side of things, a desirable end for many countries.