What is Ingeo?
learn about PLA
Ingeo is a trade name for biopolymers made from natural plant sugars that are a substitute for conventional, petroleum-based packaging and fibers. These biopolymers are made primarily of polylactic acid or PLA.
Products we carry that are made from Ingeo materials include PLA clear cold cups and deli containers, biopolymer lined paper hot cups and food containers, and CPLA cutlery - all compostable! Besides serviceware, Ingeo is used to manufacture food packaging, electronics, films and textiles.
Where is it made and what is it made from?
While products using Ingeo are made all over the world, Ingeo biopolymers themselves are manufactured in Blair, Nebraska, by NatureWorks. NatureWorks is owned by some very large agribusiness and petrochemical companies who aren’t foolish. They see the writing on the wall. Our current system of manufacturing from non-renewable (i.e. petroleum-based) materials is not sustainable and there is a lot of money to be made in developing new, renewable plant-based technologies.
As far as the process, think 7th grade science here - plants “fix” or sequester carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis, turning it into carbohydrates (plant sugars or starch). Plants have “carbs” (glucose, dextrose, sucrose - energy!) - whether we’re eating them or they’re turned into something else. NatureWorks converts the plant sugars into a polymer with the help of microorganisms who first turn the sugars into lactic acid. The lactic acid is then turned into rings of lactide linked together into a long chain of polylactide polymer.
According to their website, NatureWorks is “committed to feedstock diversification – to using the most abundant, locally available, and sustainable source of biobased carbon, wherever we produce. Equally, we're committed to critically assessing and assuring the sustainability of each and every feedstock we use.”
Currently, the main feedstock (raw material) is industrially sourced #2 yellow dent field corn, because it is so widely available and affordable. Plus, the same corn can simultaneously provide components for biopolymers and animal feed. NatureWorks calls corn and other annual crops their first generation “bridging feedstock,” while they investigate other, more sustainable options for the future, including bagasse and switchgrass. Ingeo just requires plant sugars, not necessarily corn, so more responsible choices, coming from cellulose, agricultural waste or perennial crops, are in the works.
So does that mean that Ingeo is made from GE corn or GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)?
The short answer is yes. Because the current supply of industrial corn in the U.S. is made up of 89% GE corn (according to the USDA), it is not currently feasible to procure a supply of non-GE corn. However, NatureWorks claims it is taking measures to correct this, through its sourcing initiatives. And, due to the high heat involved in the production process, no genetic material actually remains in the finished product. Read more about NatureWorks efforts at sustainability here.
So, PLA is corn plastic?
Yes, functionally, PLA acts much like conventional plastics. One thing to note with your PLA serviceware is that it is for cold foods only and begins to melt above 105 degrees. This is a drawback, but we would argue that you should also never heat or put hot foods into conventional plastics because of the health concerns of chemicals leaching into your food or drrink. “Microwave safe,” for example, means safe for the container, not safe for you!
If you need a food container that is truly safe for hot foods or drinks, we recommend anything made with bagasse or our paper food containers or hot cups lined with ...
... you guessed it - an Ingeo lining.
And when I’m done?
Best case scenario: your serviceware is composted. Ingeo materials may be used in BPI certified compostable products. This means that they will fully and safely biodegrade under the right conditions. The right conditions are a commercial composting facility - not your backyard compost pile, unfortunately. They just won’t break down unless handled properly. So, if commercial composting facilities are available to you, great! Composting is an especially good solution for the food service industry, because post-consumer utensils and containers contaminated by food cannot be as readily recycled.
Can I recycle PLA?
Well.... in theory, yes. But in reality it comes down to how your local waste hauler is handling their recyclables. They likely sort out PLA and send it to the landfill or (hopefully) to a commercial composting facility. Currently PLA is marked with a #7 (OTHER), but NatureWorks hopes that it will soon have its own unique designation. This is still relatively new territory for the recycling industry and it is in the process of adapting. Ideally, new technologies will allow recyclers to sort out PLA and remake it into PLA, an exciting possibility since most recycled plastics nowadays are “downgraded” into lesser value products.
But even if your plant-based serviceware ends up in the landfill, you’ll at least know that it created fewer greenhouse emissions in its manufacture and that it’s not leaching anything harmful into the environment, like petroluem-based products can.