Since its coming to the 3D printing scene, PLA (polylactic acid) filament has been a popular choice for users of 3D printers. With its lower melting point, a higher temperature of the build platform is not necessary as it is with ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Labeled as biodegradable and made with renewable resources, one would feel very confident that they are being ecologically sensitive to the pollution revolution. Can that sincerely be achievable? Let’s take a closer look at PLA.
PLA is not a newcomer to the plastics industry. Developed in the early 20th century by E.I. duPont, it was deemed to expensive to produce commercially, as other resins were made using the plentiful petroleum resources of that time. Later in the 20th century (after the oil embargo) was when PLA rose to a commercially manufactured product through the use of corn kernels, although any starch based plant such as sugar cane can be used. That solves the renewable resource question, but what about being biodegradable?
Like every other petroleum based plastic, PLA will take hundreds of years to degrade on its own when buried in a landfill. The conditions are not suitable to begin the reaction to convert it back to lactic acid. PLA will biodegrade however, in a commercial composting facility in under 6 months, but most likely will not biodegrade in a residential composting pile for a long, long time if at all. So, PLA is biodegradable, but not when tossed into your municipal recycle bin!