The Gulf Petrochemicals Association’s (GPCA) opinion that degradable plastic bags are not the answer to the region’s littering problem (announced early in April this year) is partly right. 'Compostable' plastic is designed to biodegrade in the special conditions found in industrial composting, so it does not address the problem of plastic litter in the open environment.
The GPCA’s secretary general, Dr Abdulwahab, has also commented on plastics which contain special additives to help them degrade, stating that these additives “break up the plastic into tiny particles which then remain in the environment and potentially cause greater long-term damage.” This may be true of 'enzymatic' additives, but it is not true of oxo-biodegradable plastic.
When plastics start degrading they break up and fragment, because that is part of the degradation process for all plastics. The question is: what happens after the fragmentation stage?
In the case of oxo-biodegradable plastic, the degradation process does not just cause fragmentation but changes the molecular structure of the material so that it ceases to be a plastic and becomes biodegradable in the same way, for example, as a leaf or blade of grass. It then disappears completely without leaving any fragments or toxic residues, instead changing into CO2, water and biomass. The end result is no plastic, no harmful residues and no long-term damage at all.
Because of this ability to change its own molecular structure and to disappear completely to a pre-set timescale (‘oxo-bio’ is still the only plastic you can 'tell' when to degrade), this form of plastic has now become compulsory for use in many countries, both for plastic bags and a plethora of other short-life plastic products.
This includes the UAE itself, where the government realises that it is not possible to collect all the plastic waste, and that some of it will always escape into the environment.
The ban on plastic shopping bags, except those made from oxo-biodegradable plastic, was widened on January 1st 2013 because of worries about plastic pollution in the deserts and the sea, and its effect on the local wildlife. Similar legislation has been enacted in Pakistan and in African countries.
The compulsory use of oxo-bio now covers not just plastic shopping bags, but all packaging and disposable articles made from polymers. These include food packaging, bin-liners, and other packaging normally used over short periods and then discarded.
In the UAE all plastic products need an ECAS Registration Certificate for oxo-biodegradable plastic issued by ESMA (Emirates Authority for Standardisation & Metrology).
Reassuringly for the doubters, the ECAS certificates are issued only for plastic made with pro-degradant additive from suppliers whose products have been stringently audited and tested by ESMA.
They also have to comply with UAE Standard 5009 of 2009, which is based on validated technical research, with cooperation from the UAE’s leading environmental agency.
Michael Laurier is CEO of oxo-biodegradable technology specialist Symphony Environmental Technologies - an authorised supplier of oxo-biodegradable plastic technology in the UAE which has towards scientifically validated international standards for the technology.
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