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Frontline Online: Plastic Fantastic?

February 9th, 2013

by Lorna Howarth

The Ecologist's Lorna Howarth reports on news and action from the environmental frontline....

Could a simple additive resolve a world-wide problem?

All countries are facing severe and growing problems with plastic waste – indeed a new film featuring Jeremy Irons called ‘Trashed’ will soon be released which shows the devastating extent of this ubiquitous material in the natural environment. It is literally everywhere: in minute particles in the ocean, in watercourses, forests, hedgerows – even in our bodies.  

The Global South is particularly struggling with the issue of plastic waste, so it’s welcome news that Pakistan has just passed new legislation – called The Prohibition of Non-degradable Plastic Products (Manufacture, Sale and Usage) Regulations, 2013 – that bans the import, manufacturing, stockpiling, trade, supply, distribution, sale and use of all disposable plastic products made wholly or substantially of polyethylene or polypropylene or polystyrene - unless they are oxo-biodegradable.  

The regulations, announced by the Minister for Climate Change, state that compliance is required in the federal territory of Pakistan from April 2013 – with the Ministry coordinating the introduction of the alternative plastic oxo-biodegradable technology with Provincial governments. This is a bold step by Pakistan, but it has much wider implications.  

The legislation prohibits not only the manufacture of conventional disposable plastic products in Pakistan, but also prevents them being imported into Pakistan. This means that all companies anywhere in the world exporting conventionally-produced disposable plastic products to Pakistan must make and/or package them in future with oxo-biodegradable technology from a supplier registered with the Pakistan government.  

In his Press Briefing, the Minister noted that, “oxo-biodegradable plastic technology is simple and needs neither alteration in machinery nor in the manufacturing process” of plastic products. All that is required is that “a small quantity of olefin-based additive is mixed with the raw material (granules) to develop biodegradable properties in plastic.”

The Minister concluded his briefing by saying “With a view to promoting this technology in the country, we held workshops on biodegradable plastics to create awareness among entrepreneurs. Because of these efforts, a number of users like; Dawn Bread, KFC, McDonalds, Hyper Star, Sazgar, DHA, ICI Polyester, MENUE etc. have started using oxo-biodegradable plastic bags as part of their social responsibility.”

It seems incredible – in fact almost too good to be true – that a ‘simple’ additive can resolve a world-wide problem, and begs the question, why don’t all governments legislate that this additive is included in plastic manufacture? 

One of the world’s major suppliers of this ‘controlled-life plastic’ is the UK company, Symphony. You may have seen their biodegradable plastic bags with the d2w teardrop symbol on them. This plastic automatically “self-destructs” at a predetermined time.

By adjusting the amount of additive, Symphony can change the shelf-life of a disposable plastic product according to its usage, whereupon, a catalyst within the d2w breaks down the molecular chain of polymers into ‘harmless’ substances that are biodegradable.

This process can take place on land or in water as long as oxygen is present and is accelerated by ultraviolet light and heat in the open environment. What’s more – and is the preferred option – the plastic can still be recycled if collected before the end of its useful life.

Symphony maintains that the broken-down polymers can be bio-assimilated by micro-organisms in the same way as is the case for leaves and straw, converting the original components of the plastic into carbon dioxide, water and biomass leaving no harmful residues.

At the time of going to press, The Ecologist is still awaiting feedback from an independent scientist to confirm that the ‘harmless’ substances left behind after decomposition of oxo-biodegradable plastics are indeed harmless when bio-assimilated.

Ultimately, much of this plastic is still derived from petroleum, and therein lies the Achilles’ Heel of this story: the continued dependence on fossil fuels. 

We welcome any feedback from Ecologist readers on the pros and cons of oxo-biodegradable plastic. 

Lorna Howarth is a writer and environmentalist. She is a contributing editor to Resurgence & Ecologist magazine and the founder of a small independent publishing agency:


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