The Evolution of PLA Biodegradable Plastics

Polylactic acid, or PLA, has emerged as a key player in the push towards more sustainable, environmentally friendly materials. PLA is a type of biodegradable plastic derived from renewable resources like corn starch, tapioca roots, or sugarcane, distinguishing it from traditional petroleum-based plastics.

The journey of PLA’s development began in the early 20th century. Scientists Carothers and Dorough discovered lactic acid polymers in the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s when PLA’s potential started gaining attention due to research in biodegradable sutures for medical applications.

In the late 1980s, Cargill, a large American corporation, saw the potential of PLA and began investing in research. By the 1990s, they had partnered with Dow Chemical Company to form a new company, NatureWorks LLC, specifically dedicated to the development and production of PLA.

The turn of the century brought significant advancements. NatureWorks became the first company to produce PLA commercially in large quantities. With this success, PLA became a more viable and attractive alternative to traditional plastics.

In the 21st century, PLA’s popularity has continued to rise as awareness of environmental issues grows. Researchers have continued to refine the production process, reducing costs and improving the material’s properties, which in turn has allowed PLA to find its way into a wide range of applications - from packaging materials to disposable cutlery, to textiles and 3D printing.

Despite some drawbacks, like a slower degradation process compared to natural materials and a need for industrial composting facilities for optimal degradation, the development and advancement of PLA represent a promising step towards a more sustainable future. As more research is invested in this field, we can anticipate further improvements in PLA’s properties and degradation process, pushing the envelope for what is possible with biodegradable plastics.
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