Say No to PLA Straws


India joined the global fight against plastic pollution by implementing a single-use plastic ban on July 1, 2022. Plastic straws were included in this ban due to their limited utility and tendency to litter the environment. In India, plastic pollution has been predominantly framed as a littering issue, with straws taking center stage in this concern. This policy change prompted numerous brands to search for alternatives, with PLA (polylactic acid) straws gaining popularity as an eco-friendly option. However, beneath their ‘green’ facade lies a complex reality. Despite being marketed as biodegradable, PLA straws cannot naturally biodegrade and require specialized industrial composting facilities for proper breakdown. Many consumers remain unaware of this, inadvertently contributing to contamination and increased pollution levels by disposing of them in regular recycling bins

PLA is non-biodegradable
According to American and European standards, companies are not allowed to label PLA (polylactic acid) products as “biodegradable”. This is because PLA doesn’t naturally break down in the environment like leaves or paper would. PLA straws undergo a highly controlled process in specialized industrial composting facilities and these facilities subject PLA products to high temperatures of at least 140°F/60°C for an extended period, typically ranging from 30 to 60 days, in the presence of specific microbes. However, it’s important to note that in India, the recycling rate of straws is unknown and there are very few such composting facilities available. The disposal of PLA straws in recycling facilities creates another significant issue, their striking resemblance to traditional plastics can lead to contamination in recycling streams of regular plastic. PLA’s lower melting point complicates things at recycling centers and makes other recycled plastics unsellable. This contamination risk could result in the entire batch of waste being rejected and sent to landfills, which poses a serious environmental threat.

Environmental Drawbacks of PLA Straws
The environmental drawbacks of PLA straws are significant. When placed in landfills, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they struggle to biodegrade naturally. This not only contributes to climate change but also creates soil acidity, potentially harming crop production. Moreover, PLA straws degrade slowly in aquatic environments and may take close to a century to decompose naturally, posing threats to marine life and exacerbating plastic pollution in rivers and oceans. 

The Responsibility of Brands and Stakeholders
In light of these environmental concerns, brands must reconsider the use of PLA straws with beverage packs. In this era of heightened environmental awareness, it is essential for them to take responsibility for offering the right straw for the consumer. Misleading claims and a lack of clear labeling must be addressed, and consumer education should be a priority.  Raising public awareness about the environmental consequences of such bioplastic is crucial. Educating consumers about the limitations of PLA straws and the importance of reducing this single-use item altogether can drive more sustainable choices. Brands can play a significant role in advocating for sustainable alternatives like paper straws, contributing to a cleaner environment, and aligning with the global movement against plastic pollution. 

Government must take a second look at PLA single-use items in plastic ban policies
It is also essential for the government’s policies to be consistent and evidence-based. Policymakers must consider the entire life cycle of products, from production to disposal, to ensure they align with sustainability goals. While PLA-based bioplastics may offer some benefits over traditional plastics, they are not a silver bullet for addressing the environmental issues associated with single-use plastics. The Indian government should carefully consider the broader context and potential drawbacks of allowing PLA-based straw, as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the environmental footprint of such products. This might involve encouraging alternative materials and promoting a shift towards reusable and sustainable options to achieve more effective and sustainable results.