There is no form of packaging which comes without consequences

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Selangor, a state on the west coast of peninsula Malaysia, introduced a ban on polystyrene food containers and free plastic bags on Jan 1, 2017. Consumers will now have to either purchase plastic bags for 20 sen or take their own reusable containers/bags with them to the shops.

The lightweight plastic carrier bag has become the symbol of plastic pollution and yet accounts for less than 0.5 percent of all plastic waste collected globally. Contrary to popular belief the lightweight plastic carrier bag is re-used two or three times around the home for waste disposal, bin liners, picking up after pets, and storing goods before it is disposed of. Places where bag bans have been introduced noticed a rise in the sale of bin liners and waste bags to fill the void.

Unfortunately, there is no form of packaging which comes without consequences. The reusable bags made from cotton or jute can harbour dangerous germs like e-coli or salmonella, because they are very rarely, if ever, washed. These bags - sometimes referred to as recyclable - are made from polypropylene and usually end up in landfill or as litter.

Paper bags are much more expensive to produce and worse for the environment because their manufacture uses a lot of land, fertilizer, energy and water and produces noxious chemicals. They are also thicker, and fall apart when wet and therefore not often re-used around the home.

In fact life cycle assessments have shown that plastic bags and more specifically oxo-biodegradable (Controlled-life) plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than paper bags, vegetable based (sometimes called compostable) plastic, and cotton re-usable bags.

The author of the article ‘Benefits of plastic bag ban far outweigh inconvenience’ today (Jan 11, 2017) is misinformed on oxo-biodegradable plastic. Oxo-biodegradable plastic does indeed contain a chemical additive, but this is not toxic, in fact it is a trace element required by the human body.

This special ingredient acts as a catalyst, in the presence of oxygen, to break the long chains of the polymer molecules which make up the plastic (not just to make the plastic fragment). This process continues until the plastic is suitable as food for microorganisms in the open environment, allowing it to degrade and biodegrade in the same way as nature’s waste, until there is nothing left.

The article further states that bags conforming to compostability standards ASTM D6400 or EN14342 are truly biodegradable. This is not the case, as these standards are for bags which are biodegradable only in industrial composting units (which are few and far between), and definitely not backyard compost heaps.

EN13432 and ASTM D6400 require 90 percent of the item to convert to CO2 gas within 180 days, so they do not make compost or anything useful for the soil. The name is misleading to say the least, and CO2 is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Malaysia is among the top 10 plastic waste-producing nations of the world, so there is a pressing need for the government to educate consumers and shopkeepers about plastic waste; they need to invest in collection and re-cycling facilities; and make oxo-biodegradable, (controlled-life) plastic mandatory, as several countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East have already done.

Can be implemented right now

Oxo-biodegradable plastic can be made in existing plastic factories using existing workforce and machinery at little or no extra cost, so it can be implemented right now. If the recycling facilities exist, it can recycled with other plastic items, but if it does escape collection and ends up in the open environment, it will degrade and biodegrade in the same way as a leaf, only quicker and leaving nothing behind.

No toxic residues or fragments of plastic, and it will not be around for decades, as conventional plastic is now.

Less plastic accumulating on land, means less plastic finding its way into the world’s oceans. Oxo-biodegradable plastic offers a practical solution to a difficult problem and allows shopkeepers and consumers to keep the best product for the job, without the environmental consequences associated with it.

MICHAEL STEPHEN is chairperson, The Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association.

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