Michigan State University’s School of Packaging is developing a new, compostable material to help cut down on waste.
Rafael Auras, a professor and researcher at MSU, believes that composting is a key component to reducing waste. Auras has been working for almost 20 years on biodegradable material, looking to create a plastic alternative that can be composted.
The base of the new material, being developed by the research team, is polylactic acid, also known as PLA. When the material is manufactured properly, the material’s byproducts are completely natural, breaking down into water, carbon dioxide, and lactic acid. Also, the researchers already know that PLA can break down easily via industrial composters.
However, to make a noticeable difference, the new material would need to work in residential compost piles. PLA currently requires special conditions such as higher temperatures, to reach that point.
Auras’ team’s research and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows it takes about 20 days for PLA to start breaking down in an industrial composter. To make PLA breaking down in residential compost systems possible, researchers will need to find a very specific formula that would allow the material to maintain its shape and integrity. Auras points to starch mix as the key.
“When you have a starch or cellulose, it degrades very fast in a compost pile. We modify the starch in order to then introduce it into the PLA. … (It’s all about finding) that sweet spot where the starch and the PLA can actually coexist,” Auras explained.