ABU DHABI // The plastic bag is beginning to lose its convenient charm among shoppers who are increasingly aware that it harms the environment, as a range of alternatives is emerging. The Emirates produces up to 8,000 tonnes of plastic film - the material in bags and wrapping - every month. One of the most likely replacements is bags made of jute, a plant grown in large quantities in India and Bangladesh. Another is a new generation of plastic that degrades in the presence of oxygen.
Jute bags are the most popular with environmentally conscious shoppers, still a niche group in the UAE but a growing one. The oxy-biodegradable bags, however, are well on their way to becoming mainstream and have already replaced regular plastic bags in more than 30 businesses in Ajman, Dubai and Sharjah. Ten large supermarkets, including the co-operative societies in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, as well as T Choithram & Sons, Lulu Hypermarkets, HyperPanda, and Aswaaq have adopted them.
Non-food retailers have also caught on, with companies such as Centrepoint, Zara, Debenhams and Home Centre all using them for customers' purchases. Eco-Polymers a Sharjah-based company, supplies more than 20 shopping-bag factories in the UAE with a patented additive developed by a British company, Symphony Environmental, to make conventional polyethylene and polypropylene degradable. "When we first started, the general awareness was still quite low," said Winston Pryce, the general manager. "There has been a significant change over the past year. The public is beginning to demand that businesses become more environmentally friendly. Most of the major supermarkets and many department stores have converted to oxy-biodegradable bags."
The company has also seen interest across the Middle East and has signed deals in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia. Conventional plastic is light, durable and strong, which means it is convenient to use. But these same qualities turn it into an environmental villain - it needs centuries to break down and meanwhile kills animals that get tangled in it or swallow it. That message is slowly spreading in the UAE, and the Ministry of Environment and Water plans to phase out conventional plastics in 2012.
Degradable bags made from mixtures of regular plastic and wheat or corn starch have been around for years. However, these are expensive and have been criticised as diverting food resources. Oxy-biodegradable plastics, on the other hand, can turn into water and carbon dioxide in less than a year thanks to a special additive, known as d2w. The process needs the presence of oxygen, with sunlight and mechanical stress acting as catalysts.
"The reason why plastic is so durable is because we put anti-oxidants and additives in it," said Mr Pryce. "One of the functions of our additive is to neutralise these oxidants and stabilisers and then act as a catalyst to start the process." The additive supplied by the company could also be modified to let the bags last longer, he said. The solution was available for companies wishing to produce reusable plastic bags, but so far there had been no interest in this option.
The oxy-biodegradable solution has its critics. Last month the European Plastics Recyclers Association said such additives could divert public attention from recycling. Other objections concern the rate of degradation - if the bags end up in a landfill, oxygen supply might be cut off, stopping the process. Another way of tackling the excessive use of plastic is to promote reusable bags. In Ireland, where a 15 per cent tax was introduced on plastic bags in 2002, their use dropped by more than 90 per cent within the same year. The Irish replaced plastic with reusable cloth bags. However, cotton has a large water "footprint". Hence the use of jute, a warm-weather crop that requires less water and less pesticide.
Danny Berger, managing partner at Jutexpo ME, a regional branch of Britain's largest jute supplier, said the company supplied about 100,000 reusable jute bags to businesses in the Gulf region. In the UAE, customers included Spinneys, Magrudy's Bookshops and Emirates Airline. Worldwide, the company sold 1.3 million bags a month. "Jute is getting more and more popular as people realise it is a great reusable bag alternative, both ethically and ecologically, to both plastic and cotton bags," said Mr Berger. The bags were fully biodegradable and could be buried with other organic matter to produce compost.
Habiba al Marashi, founder and chairwoman of the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG), said there was a place for both products. "There is no unique way, there are and can be several approaches," she said. Oxy-biodegradable bags were not the ultimate solution, but a step in the right direction, while jute bags were used in many rural areas of developing countries. "More than one alternative to conventional plastic bags should be available for consumers at the supermarkets," she said.