Cellophane plant derived and biodegradable plastic

 A guest post from Michael Bloch blogging up on Green Living

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We see many news stories about developments in the plastics industry to make these items greener. With disposable plastic shopping bags being banned in some places and consumer concern acting as the writing on the wall for the industry, it’s certainly in the sector’s interest to make more environmentally friendly plastic bag and wrap products as soon as possible.

Degradable, compostable and biodegradable plastics may seem like recent inventions, but some have been around for a very long time. One such plastic is cellophane – and it’s now experiencing resurgence in popularity.

Cellophane being plant based didn’t click with me until I was doing some research recently for a restaurant employee who was looking for a biodegradable bag suitable for use with a particular food application – it was only then that it clicked with me the “cello” in cellophane stands for cellulose – the structural component of plants.

Cellophane was invented in 1900, but wasn’t commercially available until 1912. At that point it was mainly used for wrapping candy. When moisture-proof cellophane hit the market in the late 1920′s, it rapidly increased in popularity until the 60′s when alternative petro-chemical based plastics became popular – and we all know how that worked out for the planet.

Quite a few modern bioplastics use plants, but often they use corn as the primary component. Similar to using “food as fuel“; should we be using a grain or a crop grown on land suitable for producing food for non-food uses when arable land (without further deforestation) is becoming a diminishing resource?

Cellophane has an edge here as it can be made from farmed trees or from hemp; which can grow in relatively harsh conditions.

Regarding its composting and biodegradable attributes, I’ve read various reports stating uncoated cellulose film degrades within 10 days to 1 month when buried and nitrocellulose-coated cellulose in 2 months to 3 months. Complete biodegradation of cellulose film is between 1 – 2 months for uncoated products, and from 2.5 to 4 months for coated cellulose products. In a fresh water environment, the rate of biodegradation is only 10 days for uncoated film and a month for coated cellulose film.

As far as I know, corn based bioplastics take far longer to degrade and there’s also some issues with recycling bioplastics made with corn as they are currently classified as a number 7 plastic resin, meaning “other”.

That’s the good news about cellophane; but as with most things, there are some negative aspects too environmentally speaking.

Cellophane is made by dissolving plant fiber in alkali and carbon disulfide to create something called viscose. The viscose is then reconverted to cellulose in cellophane form after a sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate bath. The cellophane is  further treated with glycerol to make the dry cellophane less brittle. The cellophane may then be coated with nitrocellulose or wax to make it impermeable to water vapor. A few nasty chemicals in that process – for example, high levels of carbon disulfide are toxic; affecting the nervous system.

However, given the amount of processing and nasties it takes to turn petro-chemicals; i.e. chemicals derived from crude oil, into plastics and the damage those plastics do long after having been discarded, it would seem to me that cellophane is probably still better environmentally speaking. Stacked up against corn based plastic bags and wraps, the better/worse distinction is a little harder to discern.

Cellophane films and bags are readily available – just run a query on the terms in your favorite search engine to locate a stockist.

Tip: When composting cellophane, scrunch it up instead of laying it flat on your compost pile. This allows for air pockets and some air is necessary when composting any material.

Trivia: another plastic product that’s been around for at least a hundred years also based on plant material is linoleum.

Find out more about compostable and other types of plastic here


PLA plastic products we use

One type of compostable plastic is made from  Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) Read more about compostable plastics here

Composting PLA Plastic At Home
While most agree that PLA plastic is indeed compostable (certified), many say that it can only composted in large scale municipal schemes. As we don’t have many large scale municipal schemes this they say is a pointless advantage.I say the days of large scale municipal schemes is fast approaching as governments aim to divert biodegradable rubbish from landfill sites.
AND I have been composting my PLA plastic for years in my Green Johanna compost bin.
It does take longer than other products and  sometimes I have found shreds of it in my compost but I dig it into the soil where it quickly disappears.
We have used and composted the following PLA plastic products.
PLA Compostable Plastic Bags
Fish in a biobag
These disposable, water-resistant bags are great for
fish and meat
Frozen foodstuffs and freezer bags.


Deli pots
Waterproof plastic pots with lids are great for all manner of deli delights including
Cream cheese
Deli counter lovelies
They can also be used to storefood in the freezer.

Disposable Cutlery  for  our big party

We haven’t used these but sourced them FYI

Dog poo bags


Remember, not all bio- plastics can be composted and some are not as green as they sound

Find out more about composting here


Polylactic acid, (PLA)

There are some truly biodegradable and compostable bioplastics.
Biodegradable products break down through a naturally occurring microorganism into simple, stable compounds which can be absorbed into the ecosystem. More about biodegrading here
To be classed compostable, items must biodegrade within a certain time (around the rate at which paper biodegrades), and the resulting biomass must be free of toxins, able to sustain plant life and be used as an organic fertilizer or soil additive.

Compostable Plastics – PLA

Polylactic acid, (PLA), plastic is an example of a biodegradable bioplastic. PLA or polylactide was discovered in 1932 by Carothers (at DuPont). (Whats a bioplastic? Find out here)

PLA is a bio-polymer
Bio-polymers can be produced from natural resources
A natural bio-polymers is one that is extracted directly from biological raw materials such as cellulose and cotton from plants, wool from sheep and silk from moths
Man made bio-polymers are also derived from plants but then further treated using chemicals.

Poly-lactic acid (PLA), falls into this category.
PLA is made from the starch found in plants including beets, sugar cane, and tapioca.. Starch is a natural polymer, a white, granular carbohydrate produced by plants during photosynthesis Starch can be made into bio-plastic. However when exposed to water starch bio-plastic swells and deforms.To stop this happening the starch needs to be modified

Starch is transformed into PLA by;
1) Using microorganisms to transform it into a lactic acid – a monomer
2) Then chemically treating the lactic acid to create a long chain polymer, polylactic acid – PLA

There are several different types of Polylactic Acid
Racemic PLLA (Poly-L-lactic Acid),
Regular PLLA (Poly-L-lactic Acid),
PDLA (Poly-D-lactic Acid),
and PDLLA (Poly-DL-lactic Acid).


PLA can be recycled back into lactic acid and used to make products of the same quality as the original- there is no down-cycling. Currently only recycled in Wisconsin and Belgium.



PLA products biodegrade into water, carbon dioxide and organic materials. and so can be composted.

“First, the moisture and heat in the compost pile split the polymer chains apart, creating smaller polymers, and finally, lactic acid. Micro-organisms in compost and soil consume the smaller polymer fragments and lactic acid as nutrients. Since lactic acid is widely found in nature, a large number of organisms metabolize lactic acid.  The end result of composting is carbon dioxide, water and humus, a soil nutrient.  This degradation process is temperature and humidity dependent. “
In commercial composters this should take about 30-45 days. In home composting bins it might take longer. Obviously the bulkier the product the harder it is to break down, and the longer it takes.

Rotting Away

a PLA bottle left in the ocean will biodegrade in six to 24 months.
It can be used for medical implants that biodegrade over time

NB PLA will not compost in landfill.

Composting PLA Plastic At Home
While most agree that PLA plastic is indeed compostable, many say that it can only composted in large scale municipal schemes. As we don’t have many large scale municipal schemes this they say is a pointless advantage.I say the days of large scale municipal schemes is fast approaching as governments aim to divert biodegradable rubbish from landfill sites.
Moreover I have been composting my PLA plastic for years. We have used and composted the following PLA plastic products ( including Biobags , Deli pots  and disposable Cutlery  )

The Rest

Are PLA products safe to eat?
People …PLA products are not edible yet are generally non-toxic. Small pieces of PLA will most likely pass harmlessly through the gastrointestinal tract. Once passed through the gastrointestinal tract it will be eliminated in the stool. 
Pigs …PLA can apparently be returned to the food chain. I have heard it suggested that you can feed it to your pig. Please double check.
I am allergic to corn; could I still use PLA products?
Yes, the heat used in the process of deriving the starch from corn destroys the immunologically reactive profiilin. Profilin is the chemical that usually causes an allergic reaction and is not found in PLA products.

Burning PLA Plastic
PLA will not emit toxic fumes when incinerated.

Useful stuff to know

Remember, not all bio- plastics can be composted and some are not as green as they sound
Find out about composting here.

PLA products I use  


Straws Compostable

The picture shows a turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose (You can watch the video in full here). Every years hundreds of thousand plastic straws end up polluting the environment. Ecocycle estimate that 500 million straws are used in the US every day alone.

If you must have disposable straws, (and none of these great reusable options suit), then why not try these compostable ones made from cornstarch. They look and act  just like  plastic straws…  but they are made from PLA cornstarch and are certified compostable.

Find out more about compostable plastic here.

You can buy them from Vegware. They do everything from black cocktail (1000 for 10.00)  to jumbo smoothie.

I have seen  paper straws on ebay but (as far as I know), they are not certified compostable and  may be plastic lined. They certainly are plastic packed.

Any one know any more?


One type of certified compostable plastic is  Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) plastic.

Some say that PLA plastics do not break down in home compost bins. THEY ARE WRONG. We have used and composted a number of  PLA plastic products.

You can see the PLA products we have used here.


Or you can try these  reusable stainless steel beauties or glass straws. 



Bioplastics or organic plastics are derived from renewable sources such as starch, vegetable oil and even chicken feathers.
Some plant derived plastics biodegrade, some do not.

The term bio-plastics is used to describe both types of plant derived plastic i.e. biodegradable and biomass derived.

This has led to some CONFUSION as some now think all bioplastics, biodegrade.
Not so.
Some bioplastics, like PLA plastic do biodegrade, indeed are certified compostable. 
Others, like the plant derived PET plastic, do not biodegrade.

Plant Derived PET
Ethane can be derived from plants.This is the same as ethane derived from oil and is used in the same way to make the same PET plastics.
Plant derived PET shares the same long-lasting, non-biodegradable qualities as petroleum derived PET i.e lasts pretty much forever.

Sorts Of Bioplastics

  • Cellulose derived plastics such as Cellophane. These plant derived plastics are amongst the first examples of the product and do biodegrade. ­
  • Starch based plastics which are compostable such as PLA plastics. They are certified compostable and do biodegrade.
  • Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs  are linear polyesters produced in nature by bacterial fermentation of ­sugar or lipids. They are produced by the bacteria to store carbon and energy. They do biodegrade
  • chicken feathers bioplastic – biodegrades.
  • Ethane based plastics as used Coca-Cola’s PlantBottle which replaces 30 percent of the ethanol in their normal polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle with 30 percent plant-derived ethanol. This means the bottle is still considered PET and can be recycled but is NOT biodegradable.

In short, just because a plastic has been made from plants does not mean it is biodegradable.

Useful To Know
The case for and against plant derived PET plastics – great article here
Why most plastics don’t biodegrade
What is Ethane .

Biodegradable/ degradable plastics.

Some conventional plastics are labeled biodegradable which may lead you to think they are, well, biodegradable! They are not. They have an additive that makes the plastic fall apart, degrade, more quickly. And only in certain conditions. You can read more here



PLA Starch Bags

PLA starch bags are described as a compostable plastic.Which can be confusing as they are a very different product from conventional, oil-derived plastics. Many people dismiss the compostable claim despite them being certified compostable  See plastics and introduction for more on this.
PLA plastic  is made  from plant-based materials such as corn starch. You can find about more about starch derived plastics here .
Once again they are compostable and certified as such.

Same, same but different?

PLA bags are almost but not quite the same as conventional plastic bags. However they share enough similarities to make them a very useful substitute and can be a great tool in your plastic free armoury.
They are not quite as strong as conventional plastic bags so are not good as carrier bags but they are water proof for a limited amount of time, ( eventually there is seepage), but you can certainly use them to carry fish or meat home. 
They are compostable and despite what folks might say they can be composted in a garden compost bin. Read more about PLA and composting here

Biobags & Others
One example of PLA bags is sold by the company Biobags. Back in the early days they were amongst the first to sell  in the U.K. They have very good credentials. Their bags are certified to BS N13432 standard and are manufactured sustainably at facilities certified to ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. BioBag is the world’s largest brand of certified biodegradable and compostable bags and films made from Mater-Bi®. Biobags are the bags used in Modbury the plastic free town.

These days many companies make and sell PLA bags and you can buy the from supermarkets. NB do check you bag is certified compostable.


What is compostable? To be classed compostable, items must biodegrade within a certain time (around the rate at which paper biodegrades), and the resulting biomass must be free of toxins, able to sustain plant life and be used as an organic fertilizer or soil additive. For a man-made product to be sold as compostable, it has to meet certain standards. One such is the European Norm EN13432. You can find out more here.

What For & Which Size?

I use them for
fish and meat – (I ask that they use my bag instead of a plastic bag).
Buying loose frozen foodstuffs … yes you can frozen peas loose!
As freezer bags.

If you can get it, I find the 6 liter size best to take shopping. The 8 litre is obviously bin liner size, and eyebrows are raised when you ask to have your steak put in a bin liner..


PLA bags  can be bought from most big supermarkets. Biobags and other PLA bags can be found in hundreds of online shops  including Amazon & Ebay. Some suppliers are listed here.


Find loose food outlets listed on the loose foods list
Other kinds of useful, plastic free bags are listed  here.


And never forget that bio-degradable plastic bags do not biodegrade where as compostable plastic bags do compost. Not all bio-plastics (plant derived plastics) are compostable.


Degradable, biodegradable or compostable


Deli pots PLA compostable

These  deli pots are  made from  PLA plastic. This looks and acts just like plastic but is made from corn starch rather than oil. Not only is this a renewable resource, it is also  compostable 

I have bought  two size of pots ( with lids), specifically made to serve food portions,  which I take to the shops with me and use instead of the plastic pots provided.

I use them for
Potato salad
and anything else that takes my fancy.

I use them in supermarkets, farmers markets and anywhere that sells loose.

My Pots

Olives 350
The 350 ml
Big enough to hold a jar of Tesco olives

beetroot 500

The 500 ml
Big enough for a jar of beetroot

Please note – the lids fit securely but are not completely waterproof – you might need to put the pots in a cornstarch bag for additional security.


The pots are really sturdy and don’t as you might imagine start biodegrading the minute you use them. For instance, I use them keep my home-made cosmetic cream in – months later there is still no sign of disintegration.

You can wash them but they do melt in hot water so cannot be washed at temperatures hot enough to sterilise. For this reason I would recommend that you take a new pot with you every time you go shopping.However that  need not stop you reusing them around the house. I recycle them as freezer pots , use them for sprouting seeds, growing cress and other garden based activities of which more later.

Find out more about PLA here


You can buy pots at various places on-line, they have started appearing on Ebay and there are some very good deals on Amazon

I bought mine from WF Dennys – very cheap but minimum purchase 100.

Vegware do a great range of shapes and sizes and will sell smaller amounts.