Can you really kick the plastic habit?

'Biodegradable' plastic bags are not really a better option : experts

Clean-up gulf saw over 2500 people participate to clear the litter strewn across the beaches of the gulf
Clean-up gulf saw over 2500 people participate to clear the litter strewn across the beaches of the gulf

But ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags cause more harm that good, challenges the GPCA...

These days shopping trips are less about what to buy and more about where to put them. The number of grocery bags that an individual accumulates during a shopping trip is worrisome.

So the governments across the world have debated measures that range from banning plastics bags, to charging for bags; to ensuring that only oxy-degradable bags are sold at super markets.

But how feasible are these measures, and are some of these additives really as good for the environment as they claim.

Degradable plastic bags are not the answer to the region’s littering problem, said Dr. Abdulwahab Sadoun, secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

The term ‘degradable plastic’ is misleading, according to Dr. Sadoun. “These materials contain special additives that break up the plastic into tiny particles, which remain in the environment and potentially cause greater long-term damage.”

Recent estimates put global plastic bag usage at 500 billion per year. In the UAE, people consume 11 billion plastic bags annually, according to the Ministry of Environment.
Effective January 1 of this year, only degradable plastic bags will be allowed at shops and supermarkets across the country, due to environmental concerns.

“While we welcome efforts to address the problem of plastic bags clogging our roadways and open spaces,” said Dr. Sadoun, “we advocate promoting measures that embrace environmental responsibility rather than adopting so-called degradable plastic products.

“GPCA members believe that plastic, like any other resource, should be re-used and recycled when possible, and disposed of responsibly when it is not. It’s crucial for governments to install greater recycling infrastructure and promote programmes that encourage consumers to mind the four ‘R’s’ – reduce, reuse, recycle and recover.”

Recently, GPCA had launched a range of initiatives to raise awareness of responsible waste management.

These programmes include initiating and implementing the Clean Up the Gulf campaign, which saw over 2,500 people participate in clean-up activities at six different locations across the Gulf – Abu Dhabi and Dubai, along with Riyadh, Al Jubail and Rabigh in Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait.

“The answer to our littering problem lies in changing behaviour. GPCA encourages the use of thicker-gauge, reusable plastic bags, instead of the traditional lightweight, disposable ones we grab at the supermarket check-out,” said Dr. Sadoun. “This makes it easier to re-use and recycle.”

A study conducted a few years ago into ‘oxo-degradable’ plastics, often labelled as degradable or biodegradable, found there was uncertainty about their impact on the natural environment.

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The carrier bags, bin bags and flexible packaging, made from common plastics with small amounts of chemicals to speed up their breakdown, are also not suitable for recycling with other plastics, reuse or composting, the research by Loughborough University found.

Oxo-degradable plastics contain additives to help them degrade into smaller pieces more quickly with the help of heat or light. 

The report said adding the metal compounds to the plastics did not improve their environmental performance and ‘potentially gives rise to certain negative effects’.

Researchers said it was hard to estimate how long the plastics would take to degrade, though somewhere between two and five years has been suggested but they do not degrade in the absence of oxygen so are unlikely to break down in landfill, where much of the plastic would end up. And the process of biodegrading, which can only happen once the plastic has initially broken into smaller fragments, takes place slowly.

One of the claims made for oxo-degradable plastics is they reduce litter as they are biodegradable, but the GPCA said that small bits of the bags will lying around for years as part of the soil and thereby even more damaging than thicker bags.

Dr. Mitchell Killeen, managing director, Africa, Middle East, India, Lyondellbasell said the industry needs to take responsibility on a global level to the waste generation that is caused by plastics, which is even a chief contributor to marine litter.

But Dr.Killeen also questioned the viability of ‘degradable plastic’ and said there was no available date to understand to what degree the plastic degraded and hence had to be propagated cautiously.

The PlastCon event where this was discussed concluded that the conundrum of whether of not to use plastic bags was interesting but simplistic solutions cause more harm than good to the planet.


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