Sunday, September 28, 2008

Most Striking Object at Open World 08

What was the most amazing thing I witnessed for the first time at OOW 08?

Hands down, it is the compostible drinking cup! Yes, compostible, not recyclable. It looks just like any other plastic (not paper) drink cup you see at almost any public water dispensers. The difference? It's made of corn syrup, I was told, not plastic and hence compostible. Wow!

I am not a green fanatic; but I consider myself a responsible adult concerned about the environment doing his share to reduce the landfills, pollutions and paper consumption. I do things that are practical: I don't print something I can read on the monitor; project emails, powerpoints on the screen/projector while conferring with colleagues rather than printing; use back sides of printouts to scribble; use 2-sided printing; donate kids' toys and cloths to charity rather than throw them in trash and so on. But there are some things I just couldn't jettison; at least not yet. One of them was the ubiquitous plastic drinking cup and the bottled water. The convenience of the water bottle was just too much to ignore and my lazy bones reigned over my conscience and I always gravitated, albeit a little guiltly, to the water bottle.

Not any more. I hope these compostible corn syrup based polymer material makes its way to all things plastic - bottles, cups, packaging and so on. The material is called polylactic acid (PLA), which is a polymer made from lactic acid from strachy produce like corn, wheat, patato and beet. However, due to its low melting point, it's not suitable for hot liquids, at least not yet. There is a compostible version - paper cups lines with PLA instea dof petroleum based products. But that's still paper; not 100% PLA.

According to a Smithsonian article, producing this PLA requires 65% less energy and emits 68% fewer greenhouse gases. Wow! That's good enough for me.

But, is it all rosy and smell nice? Well, afraid not. The biggest caveat: the PLA decomposes in a controlled composting facility, not the backyard composting bin. you need something of industrail strength - the sort used by municipalities and large industrial plants. Do they exist? Yes, for commercial use; but almost none for residential use. So, that's the catch. While the material is compostible; the facility to compost is not available.

But I am not going to look at it as glass half full. This is a major first step. Perhaps the ecological and political pressures will force the residential facilities to open up as well. Until then, let the power be with PLA.
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