Photo with Courtesy from Weston Fuller for OP conservation purposes
More and more establishments are taking their stand against single-use plastic by saying no to plastic straws. Black, green and pearlescent forms of PLA are saluting our restaurant counters and the war on single-use plastic is officially on! But for how many of us is this plastic look-alike really convincing and what is the impact on our seas?
WHAT IS PLA?
Unlike regular petroleum-based plastic, PLA (Polylactic Acid) is made from naturally occurring, renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane (biomass), which undergoes non-toxic biological decomposition into carbon dioxide, water and biomass on exposure to the right environments such as a compositing heap. While it behaves and looks like plastic in many ways, it is not as heat resistant so would melt if exposed to hot soup. Once formed PLA is non-toxic however, fumes released during manufacture are toxic.
PLA can be manufactured in a similar way to plastic, using the same technology. For this reason, PLA is a reasonably cost-effective substitute to petroleum-based plastics for many businesses who run a tight operating margin. However, the fact that it is not ‘real’ plastics, does not always make it the best option for the marine environment.
COMPOSTING AND PLA
The rate of PLA decomposition is severely impacted by exposure to different environments as well as the composition and thickness of the material. PLA naturally degrades within 3-6 months in thermo-controlled composting stream (with an ideal temperature of 49 degrees celcius). Exposure to a cold ocean or landfill on the other hand is not as conducive to decomposition and will require more time (e.g. 6-24 months up to 2 years). In this regard, exposure to the ocean leaves a PLA straw just as much of a threat to marine creatures as plastic.
Another important thing to note is that bioplastics cannot be recycled. Putting PLA into regular recycling means it will reduce the quality of other plastics. And as South Africa does not always have composting options or facilities to recycle PLA, we really need to be aware of not confusing the two.
DOES PLA AMOUNT TO GREEN WASHING?
PLA is really the ‘green’ substitute for petroleum-based plastics that often make us feel better about our purchases. It does little to change consumer behaviour and under the wrong circumstances, is just as harmful as plastic as it can also take years to degrade. That being said, PLA for single-use products still wins over plastic any day! It uses renewable resources which means that even though it may take longer to degrade in the oceans or in landfill, you can at least rest assured that it will naturally degrade and ultimately disappear, whereas real plastic will remain forever more.
THE BETTER STRAW
If you cannot use your lips, paper, bamboo (we care collective), glass (stream straw) or stainless steel (faithful to Nature) straws remain the most environmentally friendly options. Paper straws biodegrades within a few days of reaching our oceans. Cape Cup has an awesome range using non-toxic soy dyes for colour, and GreenHome has recently launched their paper straw offering too.
The current surge of saying no to straws has hit the streets of Cape Town and South Africa. We are delighted to see more and more establishments take their stand. However, despite proclamations, it will take the support of the staff and the voice of the consumers to implement such changes and to understand the repercussions of the substitutes they choose. So, be informed, speak your mind. Tell the managers why this initiative is so important to our oceans, in a far as you can, use re-usable options and help our oceans by just saying NO to plastic straws!
For a list of current restaurants in South Africa who #refusethestraw, see the list below (compiled by Food24):
Abode (Biscuit Mill)
Beetbox (Mojo Market, Seapoint)
Ground Art Cafe
Shop Zero, Woodstock
The Jar Bar (Online store)
The Wild Fig, Mowbray
Faith Juice, Noordehoek
Hang 10, Muizenberg
Whole Earth Cafe, Scarborough
Sirocco, Kalk Bay
Live Bait, Muizenberg
Cape Town Surrounds:
Schoon Bakery, Somerset West
Four Cousins Restaurant, Robertson
Vygevallei Farmstall, Malmesbury
Durban and East Coast:
Parc. Cafe, Glenwood
Arts Café, Glenwood
The Waffle House, Ramsgate
The Barn Owl, KZN
Nina’s Real food, Jeffreys Bay
In Food Bakery and Deli, Jeffreys Bay
Sanook Cafe, East London
Sanook Eatery, East London
Cantina and Craft, East London
Johannesburg and Pretoria:
Beira Alta at Montecasino
Gravity Cafe, Linden
Chalkboard Cafe, Maboneng
La Coco C, Pretoria East