Three coffee cups with polylactic acid lining with sugarcane and corn on a wood table

Polylactic acid (PLA) continues to grow as a sustainable alternative for eco-conscious companies. Derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugarcane, PLA offers a biodegradable alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics, aligning with the increasing demand for environmentally friendly products. 

This bioplastic not only reduces the carbon footprint but also supports a circular economy by ensuring end-of-life biodegradability. In this analysis, we will explore the origins of PLA, its development process, and the benefits it presents over conventional plastic linings, highlighting its potential as a pivotal component in sustainable business practices.

Introduction to Polylactic Acid (PLA)

Defining Polylactic Acid

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a type of bioplastic derived from renewable organic sources such as corn starch, sugarcane, or tapioca roots. Unlike conventional plastics made from petroleum, PLA is biodegradable and compostable under industrial conditions. 

It is produced through the fermentation of plant sugars, followed by polymerization. PLA is widely used in various applications, from packaging and textiles to coffee cups and biomedical devices. Its ability to break down into natural components makes it a viable alternative to petroleum-based plastic. 

Origins of PLA

The origins of polylactic acid (PLA) date back to the early 20th century when researchers first explored its potential as a bioplastic. However, it was not until the 1990s that advancements in biotechnology made large-scale production feasible. The key breakthrough came with the development of efficient methods to ferment plant sugars into lactic acid, which is then polymerized to form PLA. 

Thanks to these innovations, the production of PLA became economically viable, leading to its commercialization. Companies like NatureWorks were pioneers in this field, launching the first commercially available PLA products. Today, PLA is produced globally, with significant manufacturing hubs in the United States, Europe, and Asia. This widespread production capability has enabled PLA a widely used sustainable material, offering an alternative to petroleum-based plastics.

PLA vs Traditional Petroleum-Based Plastics

Polylactic acid (PLA) and traditional plastics differ significantly in their sources, production processes, and environmental impacts. Traditional plastics are predominantly derived from non-renewable petroleum resources, contributing to fossil fuel depletion and greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, PLA is sourced from renewable biomass like corn-starch or sugarcane, which sequesters carbon during growth, reducing the overall carbon footprint.

Additionally, PLA is biodegradable under industrial composting conditions, breaking down into water and carbon dioxide without leaving toxic residues. This contrasts sharply with traditional plastics, which can persist in the environment for hundreds of years, contributing to pollution and harming wildlife.

From a manufacturing perspective, PLA production consumes less energy and generates fewer emissions compared to conventional plastic synthesis. PLA has limitations, such as lower heat resistance and the need for industrial composting facilities. Ongoing research and development aim to enhance its properties. 

Benefits of PLA 

Environmental Impact of PLA

The environmental impact of polylactic acid (PLA) is notably lower than that of petroleum-based plastics, making it an attractive option for businesses committed to sustainability. One of the primary benefits of PLA is that it is made without fossil fuels. In addition, its biodegradability is a major benefit over conventional plastics that can take centuries to decompose. PLA can break down into natural components within a few months under industrial composting conditions, significantly reducing the volume of waste that ends up in landfills and oceans.

According to independent reports, producing PLA uses 65 percent less energy and generates 63 per cent fewer greenhouse gasses. The use of renewable resources like corn starch or sugarcane further enhances PLA’s environmental credentials, as these plants absorb carbon dioxide during their growth, contributing to a reduced carbon footprint.

Cost-Effectiveness of PLA

The cost-effectiveness of polylactic acid (PLA) is a critical consideration for businesses evaluating sustainable alternatives to traditional plastics. While PLA production costs were initially higher, technological advancements and increased manufacturing scale have significantly reduced these costs. Economies of scale and improved fermentation and polymerization processes have made PLA more competitively priced.

Another factor contributing to PLA’s cost-effectiveness is its alignment with regulatory trends and consumer demand. As governments globally impose stricter regulations on single-use plastics and carbon emissions, adopting PLA can help businesses avoid potential fines and comply with environmental standards. 

Consumer Perception and PLA

Consumer perception is a powerful driver for businesses adopting polylactic acid (PLA) as a sustainable material. Today’s consumers are increasingly eco-conscious and prioritize products that align with their values of environmental responsibility. 

PLA’s renewable origin and biodegradability resonate well with consumers concerned about plastic pollution and climate change. Products made from PLA often carry certifications and labels that highlight their eco-friendly attributes, further enhancing consumer trust and loyalty. This positive perception can translate into increased sales, as consumers are willing to support brands that contribute to environmental conservation.

Applications of PLA in Various Industries

PLA in Packaging

Polylactic acid (PLA) has gained significant traction in the packaging industry due to its sustainable attributes and functional properties. As an eco-friendly alternative to traditional plastics, PLA is used in various packaging applications, including food containers, beverage bottles, and disposable cutlery. Its transparency and rigidity make it suitable for products that require clear and sturdy packaging.

PLA’s biodegradability is a key advantage, offering a solution to the growing problem of plastic waste. Packaging made from PLA can break down into natural components under industrial composting conditions, reducing landfill waste and environmental pollution. 

PLA in Textiles

Polylactic acid (PLA) is making significant inroads into the textile industry as a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based fibers. PLA fibers are derived from renewable resources like corn starch and offer several benefits, including biodegradability, reduced carbon footprint, and lower energy consumption during production. These attributes make PLA an attractive option for eco-conscious textile manufacturers and consumers alike.

In textiles, PLA can be used to produce a variety of products such as clothing, upholstery, and non-woven fabrics. PLA fibers are known for their softness, breathability, and comfort, making them suitable for everyday wear. Additionally, PLA’s natural resistance to UV light and high moisture-wicking properties enhance its functionality in performance and outdoor apparel.

By integrating PLA into their product lines, textile companies can meet the growing demand for sustainable fashion and home textiles. 

PLA in Medical Devices

Polylactic acid (PLA) is increasingly utilized in the medical device industry due to its biocompatibility, biodegradability, and non-toxic properties. These characteristics make PLA an ideal material for applications where temporary support and gradual resorption by the body are required. PLA is commonly used in the production of sutures, stents, and drug delivery systems.

In surgical applications, PLA sutures are preferred because they naturally degrade over time, eliminating the need for removal and reducing the risk of infection. Similarly, PLA-based stents provide temporary scaffolding in vascular procedures, gradually dissolving as the vessel heals.

The controlled degradation rate of PLA also makes it suitable for drug delivery systems. Medication can be encapsulated within PLA, allowing for a sustained release over an extended period, improving therapeutic outcomes.

PLA in Food Containers, Coffee Cups, and more

Advancements in PLA technology have improved its barrier properties, making it more suitable for preserving the freshness and quality of food products. Emerald Ecovations utilizes PLA to line their to-go food containers, cutlery, coffee cups, and more to ensure these everyday essentials avoid the landfill. 

Every year, over 32 million trees are felled to produce our single-use coffee cups. Unfortunately, the majority of these cups are not recycled because of the lining.

Ever wondered why the paper cup holding your delicious beverage isn’t leaking all over your hands? It’s because of polyethylene (PE), a type of plastic most commonly used around the world for plastic bags, packaging, and as a coating on paper cups to make them strong and waterproof. 

Since PE is petroleum-based, it can significantly impact how long it takes for the cup to break down. PE-lined cups can still be recycled, but they have to go through a recycling process separate to other recyclables, which is not efficient. PLA, on the other hand, is known as a bioplastic because these materials are renewable resources.

Emerald Ecovations offers coffee cups, to-go food containers, and a suite of other products that are not only PLA-lined for industrial composting, but are also grass-based products that don’t require trees. 

Challenges and Solutions for PLA Adoption

Overcoming Production Hurdles

Despite its numerous benefits, the production of polylactic acid (PLA) faces several challenges that need to be addressed for widespread adoption. One of the primary hurdles is the cost and availability of raw materials. While PLA is derived from renewable resources like corn starch, fluctuations in agricultural yields and prices can affect production costs and supply stability.

Another challenge is the energy-intensive nature of the fermentation and polymerization processes required to produce PLA. Innovations in biotechnology are crucial to enhance efficiency and reduce energy consumption, making PLA production more sustainable and cost-effective.

PLA’s thermal and mechanical properties can limit its application in high-temperature or high-stress environments. Ongoing research aims to improve these properties through copolymerization and additives, expanding the range of applications for PLA. Collaborative efforts between industry stakeholders, researchers, and policymakers are essential to overcome these production hurdles. 

Enhancing PLA Properties

Enhancing the properties of polylactic acid (PLA) is crucial to expanding its range of applications and overcoming current limitations. One key area of improvement is increasing PLA’s thermal resistance. PLA tends to have a lower melting point compared to traditional plastics, limiting its use in high-temperature environments. Researchers are addressing this by developing PLA blends and copolymers that offer better thermal stability.

Mechanical strength is another focus area. While PLA is naturally rigid, it can be brittle. To enhance its durability, additives such as plasticizers and reinforcing fibers are being incorporated. These modifications help PLA achieve the necessary toughness for demanding applications, such as automotive parts and durable goods.

Future Innovations in PLA Technology

Future innovations in polylactic acid (PLA) technology hold the promise of addressing current limitations and unlocking new applications. One exciting area of development is the creation of bio-based plasticizers and modifiers. These innovations aim to enhance PLA’s flexibility and toughness without compromising its biodegradability, making it suitable for more demanding uses.

Nanotechnology also offers promising advancements. By incorporating nanomaterials, researchers can significantly improve PLA’s mechanical, thermal, and barrier properties. These enhancements could make PLA viable for high-performance applications, such as electronics and advanced packaging solutions.

Another frontier is the development of PLA composites. Combining PLA with other biodegradable materials or natural fibers can produce composites with superior properties tailored to specific industrial needs.

Advancements in recycling technologies are crucial. Efforts are underway to create efficient chemical recycling processes that can convert PLA waste back into its monomers, facilitating a closed-loop system and contributing to a circular economy.

Case Studies and Success Stories

Leading Companies Using PLA

Several leading companies across various industries have successfully integrated polylactic acid (PLA) into their product lines, showcasing its versatility and sustainability. NatureWorks, one of the pioneers in PLA production, supplies Ingeo™ PLA to numerous brands globally. Coca-Cola, for instance, has utilized PLA in its PlantBottle™, a partially bio-based alternative to traditional plastic bottles, reducing its carbon footprint significantly.

In the packaging sector, companies like Tetra Pak have adopted PLA for coating their paper-based cartons, enhancing their recyclability and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Similarly, the fashion industry has seen brands like Patagonia incorporating PLA fibers into their clothing lines, offering sustainable apparel options.

In the biomedical field, companies like Medtronic have developed PLA-based medical devices, such as biodegradable sutures, which improve patient outcomes while minimizing environmental impact.

PLA Success in Startups

Startups are at the forefront of innovation, and many have embraced polylactic acid (PLA) to drive their sustainability agendas. For example, Loliware, a startup known for its eco-friendly products, has developed edible and biodegradable straws using PLA. These straws provide a sustainable alternative to plastic and align with consumers’ environmentally conscious preferences.

Another notable startup, Avani Eco, has leveraged PLA to create a range of biodegradable products, including bags, food containers, and cutlery. Their mission to reduce plastic waste has garnered significant attention and support from both consumers and investors, highlighting the market potential for PLA-based solutions.

In the fashion industry, startups like For Days have utilized PLA fibers to produce sustainable clothing. Their closed-loop system allows customers to return worn-out garments for recycling, reducing textile waste and promoting circular fashion.

Despite its challenges, the overall consumer sentiment remains supportive of PLA as a means of reducing plastic pollution. The growing awareness and demand for sustainable products continue to drive innovation and improvements in PLA technology. Companies that actively seek and respond to consumer feedback are better positioned to enhance their PLA offerings and build stronger relationships with their environmentally-conscious customer base.


Despite the challenges in production and the need for industrial composting facilities, ongoing research and development are paving the way for PLA to become an even more adaptable and efficient material. By integrating PLA into their operations, companies can contribute significantly to environmental conservation while meeting the growing demand for sustainable products. Thus, PLA represents a pivotal component in the journey towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly future.

Related Articles

Stay up-to-date on the latest sustainability news

with the Going Zero newsletter, sponsored by Emerald Ecovations