When we think of plastic, we do not always assume it is from a good place – in fact, rarely do we ever think that. Plastic is usually the result of using fossil fuels via polymerization and the distillation of petroleum.
Polylactic acid, also known as PLA, is a type of thermoplastic monomer that uses biomass resources. The plastic itself is derived from organic, renewable origins. These are things such as sugar cane and starch that also makes it a biodegradable material, which, of course, is better for the planet.
It can degrade and turn into lactic acid, and doing so means it can be used as a material for medical uses, food items and other products we have in our daily lives.
Even so, PLA is a plastic that is durable and has similar properties to other plastic types such as polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene. It is also cost efficient due to the fact it can be manufactured using the exact same equipment that is used by petrochemical plastics (like the ones mentioned).
PLA happens to also be the second most common type of bioplastic that is produced. Thermoplastic starch tops that list, which is a plastic that sometimes has a high content of water within its makeup.
So, what actually is PLA in more detail? Let us find out…
What is PLA Used for in Day-to-Day Life?
PLA has a lot of uses within our day-to-day lives that you probably do not even realise you have touched it.
Due to its ease of being moulded or spun, it can make a number of easy to decompose packaging. This could be a cup, shopping bags, bottles, feminine hygiene products, clothing that you can dispose of, general food packaging, compost bags, tableware that is thrown away, amongst so much more.
Due to its biodegradability, it is also used within the medical industry. It is a great material to use as a medical implant because it will biodegrade after half a year, a year, or even two years.
So, if you have had anything like plates, screws, rods or pins put inside your body during an operation, it could well be PLA.
However, because it is a good plastic to mould, it is not suitable to be used for something like a hot take-out cup. Due to PLA having a low glass transition temperature, the hot coffee would cause the cup to just melt.
Actually, it is not a bad thing, because due to this, it is a great plastic to use in 3D printing. So, we shall get onto that next.
Why PLA Works in 3D Printing
As we have just mentioned, PLA is perfect for 3D printing due to its ‘melting’ capabilities. It is a softer plastic that can be manipulated via different sources to create a manageable plastic to work with.
Not only that, PLA is a good plastic to use within low temperatures without the need of extra equipment such as a printer chamber or heated bed.
Because of the ease of use, it is also super user friendly. It is simple enough to create things with, paint, sand down, as well as the fact it does not release any fumes either.
The plastic is post-processor friendly, and can be produced in a variety of different colorways. So, to put it simply, it is a safe plastic for anyone to create ideas with.
How Products React With PLA?
There are a few different solutions that will affect the plastic. Whereas this may sound counterproductive, it is actually useful to know if you are planning to use PLA to do 3D printing.
Using a household product such as acetone will soften the surface of the material which will cause it to become stickier, without it dissolving. This means you can attach that bit of PLA to another bit of PLA.
To remove PLA from a surface, whether that is in the 3D printing machine itself – or anywhere else – ethylacetate, an organic solvent, dissolves PLA – so do not accidently use this if you are creating something!
Is It Actually Good for the Environment?
Plastic is not known for being climate friendly, but PLA is most certainly a plastic that has its advantages when it comes to the planet.
Not only does it generate fewer greenhouse gases, in fact 68% less, it also contains no toxins. This means that it will not release any nasties into the environment when it degrades.
Also, the production of PLA uses 65% less energy compared to that of conventional plastic manufacturing.
However, even though this sounds promising, PLA has been shown to not degrade in seawater at 77 fahrenheit. Even so, there are a few options to get rid of PLA:
- Landfill – going to landfill is not the best option with PLA due to how long it takes for the plastic to degrade. It is also not good for the planet.
- Composting – despite how long it takes to degrade, industrial composting is a great way to dispose of PLA. The conditions actually allow for the process of chemical hydrolysis to take place. This is then followed by microbial digestion.
- Incineration – this one is the quickest of them all and it will leave no trace of the plastic behind, though it does use energy to do the process.
Types of PLA
When it comes to PLA, there are a number of different types due to the chiral nature of lactic acid and the distinct forms it creates. These are poly-L-lactide (also known as PLLA), which is from the polymerization of L,L-lactide (or L-lactide).
PLA is also a plastic that can be produced using several different biomass materials like we mentioned at the beginning of the article. But, not only that, the plastic can be enhanced further by adding different materials to change its properties.
These are called PLA blends and they can be used in 3D printing, though it can actually make the process a lot more difficult.
As we know, PLA is softer and easy to work with, but adding extra material in can change the way it behaves and the temperature it melts at.
Some of these materials are:
- Metal filaments – to make parts of the plastic shiny and strong, metal such as copper, steel, iron, bronze and brass can be added.
- Wood filaments – for a natural looking appearance, you can add cedar, bamboo, cork, walnut, pine and coconut wood.
- Miscellaneous – a number of other items can be added for color and scent purposes. These are coffee or beer, as well as carbon fire.
PLA is a great material to use within 3D printing and day-to-day items. Not only is it much better for the environment, it is also an easy plastic to work with and has many advantages compared to other plastics.
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