Polylactide (PLA) biodegradability

Image of PLA (a material we use in 3D printing). One sample says "exposed" and another says "compost"The Sherman Centre recently purchased a Makerbot Fifth Generation Replicator, and we currently have an Ultimaker 2 in our space at the moment, although that machine is destined for the Lyons New Media Centre upstairs.

A number of visitors and Sherman residents have asked questions about the filament that is used for 3D printing. Both of these printers are currently using PLA (polylactic acid or polylactide), which per Wikipedia, the font of all reliable scientific knowledge, is a biodegradable plastic. Wikipedia jokes aside, biodegradability does not mean that a substance turns into wonderfully scented compost that makes strawberries taste better, but rather simply that some biological agent is capable of breaking it down into naturally occurring compounds.

We decided to run a simple experiment this summer to answer the questions regarding PLA’s biodegradability for ourselves. We have taken two more or less identical¬†rafts¬†(pictured) leftover after printing components for Arduino kits and plan to subject them to the elements, aka we’re going to put them on the roof in some rather inhospitable summer weather. The first will be tied down to a board and fully sun/rain/wind exposed, while the other will be placed in a small simulated compost bin, which we would consider to be the more biologically active of the two environments. We plan to weigh and assess the rafts at set intervals over the next two months to monitor matieral loss and to make general observations. We hope to learn not only a thing or two about how PLA degrades, but also how well it stands up to the elements, since that’s a consideration for possible applications for 3D printer-generated objects. We’ll share our results this fall.

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