United Arab Emirates’ residents are awash with excitement over the Ministry of Environment and Water’s moves to ban conventional plastic bags by 2013. And so they should be. Plastic bags are the bane of natural existence. They leach toxic materials into our soil and water, they kill marine and terrestrial life, choke roughly half of the UAE’s camels, and won’t stop doing these things for centuries since they don’t biodegrade. But there is reason to cast a questioning eye on the alternatives.
AME recently reported that the Ministry of Environment and Water has stipulated that “biodegradable” plastic bags manufactured in the UAE have to be certified by the Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA). Engineer Mohammad Saleh Badin, the authority’s Acting Director General, told the paper that all plastic bags must be biodegradeable by 2013.
What makes them biodegradable?
There are different kinds of biodegradable bags. Those that are made from natural materials, such as corn or animal byproducts, and are truly biodegradable. Then there are petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable plastics that incorporate special additives to speed up the degradation process.
The UAE has proposed to use the oxo-biodegradable variety as an alternative to the current 12 billion plastic bags used throughout the Emirates, 95% of which are manufactured in-country.
To date, three firms have been certified under the technical regulations issued by the UAE cabinet to produce these less environmentally harmful alternatives, including Wells Plastics Ltd, Symphony Environmental Ltd., and Bin Hilal Enterprises. All three firms will rely on additives to render their plastics biodegradable.
How does it work?
Metals salts are incorporated to catalyze a degradation which produces shorter chain molecules (these break down much more quickly than standard plastics). But this reaction only takes place in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. In other words, without oxygen, this process won’t happen.
If the new “biodegradable” plastic bags land up in the landfill with other solid waste, they won’t biodegrade since there will be insufficient oxygen. Also, these plastics will contain trace metals such as cobalt, iron, and manganese that can still leach into the environment.
Petroleum-based plastics will also continue to contribute to carbon emissions because the carbon trapped in them, unlike true biodegradable bags, can’t be sequestered.
Nor can they be recycled with normal plastic because they degrade in the presence of UV and heat. They also fail to meet the US ASTM D6400 standard for industrial scale composting.
There’s still time to act:
Since incorporating these new bags into the UAE is still in the planning phases, it is possible to simultaneously plan a proper post-disposal strategy to ensure that they are used in accordance with their design. If disposed where plenty of heat, moisture, and oxygen exists, the bags should degrade within 2-18 months. And if properly controlled, they need not leach trace metals into our waterways and soils.
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