UAE’s plastic manufacturers will have to follow the new regulations of producing only oxo-biodegradable plastic bags soon, writes Shakul Rai.The federal government’s decision to ban the production and usage of non-degradable plastic bags is a milestone event. Non-degradable plastic bags pose a threat to the environment with their inappropriate disposal.
The initiative was launched as early as 2009 with a ruling by the ministry of environment and water. The Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA) has developed a standard UAE.S 5009/2009 titled Standard and Specifications for oxo-biodegradation of plastic bags and other disposable plastic objects. All manufacturers of plastic bags will have to register with ESMA under Emirates Conformity Assessment Scheme (ECAS). All bags must be produced using one of the approved oxo-biodegradable additives and comply with the standard.
Widespread usage of plastic bags and the litter resulting from careless disposal, absence of effective collection and waste management system in many countries have altogether made plastics the biggest villain of our environment. Although environmentalists, government authorities and other non-governmental agencies are concerned about the situation, there is a lot of confusion among the general public as to what is eco-friendly, and what is not.
Many sections of the society are of the opinion that paper bags are an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bag. This is not true. The fact is that the carbon footprint of paper is extremely high. There would be an ecological disaster if the number of trees started decreasing to make paper bags, effectively increasing global warming.
Paper is recyclable, but a very delicate balance needs to be maintained between the number of trees cut for paper and the number of new trees planted. Moreover, paper does not have any barrier properties or adequate mechanical strength, unless a very thick and heavy bag is used.
Bio-plastics are compostable plastics. Most varieties of bio-plastics are manufactured using starch extracted from crops such as maize, beetroot, wheat, tapioca and have very serious social and economical implications, in terms of diverting land, water and agricultural products. More importantly, bio-plastics cannot be recycled. Further, if bio-plastic waste ends up in a landfill, it emits methane due to anaerobic biodegradation. It is well known Methane is a very harmful gas, which has 23 times higher global warming impact compared to carbon dioxide. Bio-plastics raw material, as well as packaging needs cool temperatures for storage and transportation.
Bio-plastics are more expensive compared to conventional plastics. Bio-plastic waste has to be disposed off in a commercial composting facility, and, can be decomposed only by consuming more water and energy in a time frame of six months. Bio-plastics could become relevant at a later stage (70 – 80 years hence) when all hydrocarbon resources have been exhausted and there is no possibility of producing conventional plastics from oil/gas by-product.
Conventional plastic bags (Hydrocarbon-based)
Since conventional hydrocarbon-based plastics are derived from naptha; a by-product of crude oil refining, it makes good sense to use up what would have otherwise been flared off. As long as crude oil is available and is used to produce fuel for energy, naptha would be available. Conventional plastics have the lowest carbon footprint as compared to paper or bio-plastics, and are, therefore, most eco-friendly, as compared to other options.
The manufacturing process uses the least resources in terms of water consumption, fossil fuel use, energy usage and emits lesser greenhouse gases when compared to manufacturing of other types of bags. In spite of all the inherent advantages, plastics have created a huge problem of pollution due to careless post-consumer disposal, leading to unsightly litter on the streets and countryside, blocking drains and leading to a much avoidable death of animals due to choking.
Further, they do not degrade and persist in the environment for hundreds of years, which multiplies the problem of disposal. Careless disposal is a purely behavioural issue and needs to be handled very stringently in an appropriate manner.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic bags
These are a modified form of conventional hydrocarbon polymers-based plastics, produced by blending one to two per cent of an oxo-biodegradable additive during the extrusion or moulding process. No changes in processing parameters and equipment are required. Oxo-biodegradable plastics when discarded and exposed to heat and UV rays in sunlight, undergo chain scission of their long chain polymer structure (oxidative degradation).
This results in significant reduction of molecular weight of the material from 250,000 units to typically 5,000 units, over a pre-determined period. This process allows them to be consumed by bacteria and fungi present in soil, litter or landfills, ultimately becoming water, CO2 and humus, by a two-stage degradation process. Degradation begins when the desired service life is over and the product is no longer required. This is controlled by the additive composition.
The best part of this technology is that oxo-biodegradable plastics can be recycled or incinerated, if collected. However, if they are disposed irresponsibly making collection difficult, they will degrade and disappear, leaving no harmful residue. Exposure to sunlight and heat accelerates degradation. There is only a 5-10 per cent increase in cost and conventional polymers like Polyethylene, Polypropylene or Polyester etc. can be used to make oxo-biodegradable grade of films and bags. Oxo-biodegradable plastics are gaining acceptance and are being used for increasing number of applications, such as grocery bags, shopping bags, bread bags, shrink films, agriculture film, multilayer packaging films among other products, all over the world.
Oxo-biodegradable plastics are fully compatible with the initiatives of ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle’ and can form an important CSR initiative for FMCG producers or plastic bags users. The three R’s initiative are most important for controlling the plastics menace. Also, in addition, recognising and adopting oxo-biodegradable plastics would be a step in the right direction for any country that has a high incidence of careless litter.
Shakul Rai managing director, Excel International FZC, Ras Al Khaimah, is an engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur, India and has MBA from Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India. He has over 28 years experience in plastics-based packaging. He is currently involved in helping plastic processors in UAE and other GCC countries produce environment-friendly plastics using ‘Reverte oxo-biodegradable technology’ of Wells Plastics Ltd., U.K.