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What Is PHA?

by Anna Anderson on 06/18/2019 | 3 Minute Read

“Plastic”— it’s almost becoming a bad word. And it makes sense: some 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic have found their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an island of floating trash and plastic that’s now bigger than France, Germany, and Spain combined. And it’s not going away anytime soon—that plastic could take hundreds, or even thousands of years to finally biodegrade. Yikes.

That—combined with the giant carbon footprint that results from producing standard, petroleum-based plastic (hello, fossil fuels)—is urgently driving the need to come up with alternatives to one-use plastic packaging. More and more, brands are turning to bioplastics as a viable option.

Until now, PLA (polylactic acids) has been leading the bioplastics pack, with brands and retail giants like Newman’s Own and Walmart using it in some of their packaging.

But there’s a new biomaterial kid in town that might eclipse PLA in the very near future—PHA.

Also known as ‘‘polyhydroxyalkanoates’ (I can’t pronounce it either), PHA is a natural polyester derived from bacterial fermentation. (the good kind of bacteria.) This bacteria feeds off oils—canola or castor oil, for example—and then converts those oils into a natural plastic used in single-use packaging for food, beverages, and other consumer products.

So what’s so great about PHA? Its superior biodegradability. Unlike PLA, PHA degrades quickly in all conditions. In a biotreatment plant, it’ll break down in as little as 20 days, but it also breaks down quickly in soil, compost, and marine sediment. Even better? PHA is the only biomaterial that can biodegrade in waterways—which is welcome news for our oceans, rivers, and streams.

PLA, on the other hand, requires an industrial composter in order to break down. So, if PLA ends up in the ocean or any old landfill—which it often does—it won’t break down any quicker than conventional petroleum-based plastics.

So why hasn’t PHA become industry standard yet? Cost. PLA is still cheaper to produce.

But the cost might not be a factor for very much longer. Researchers are findingcheaper ways of producing PHA, by using inedible stalks and leaves from agricultural crops, un-recycled paper or cardboard, and food waste—banana peels, potato peels, and even cafeteria rubbish from a Campbell’s Soup factory. Using waste products like these has the potential to significantly drive down the cost of producing PHA, making it an economic competitor to PLA. Using waste products also means that valuable land won’t go toward growing crops to produce PHA. That, in turn, means that acreage can go toward growing food crops which will be critical in an increasingly food-scarce world.

Many industry leaders are already getting on board the PHA train. PepsiCo is partnering with the biotechnology firm Danimer Scientific to develop PHA-based packaging for snacks, and Nestle is developing PHA-based water bottles. Even smaller brands, like Cove, are turning to PHA to produce their reusable water bottles. It’s a smart move—not just for the environment, but for business too. Consumers are more concerned than ever about sustainability, and so are governments—look at the uptick of plastic straw and bag bans across the country.

Single-use plastic won’t be going away anytime soon—it’s simply too convenient. Given that, it’s essential for brands to ask—what’s the most responsible and eco-conscious way to go about plastic use? PHA might be part of the answer, and as affordability grows in 2019 and beyond, we might watch this bacterial-derived plastic become a new giant in the packaging industry.