Green Queen There's no clear alternative to the ubiquitous carriers that are proving extremely difficult to safely degrade, despite the best efforts of science.
Our plastic bags are full of groceries, and guilt
I have at least a dozen different reusable grocery bags at home: several puffy green cloth ones from Spinneys, the slimmer versions offered by Abu Dhabi Co-operative Society, Carrefour's mammoth variety and others from Lulu Hypermarket, which fall somewhere in between.
But do I always use them? No. The dilemma comes every time I am out and about and decide I want to pick up some ingredients for dinner. No bag, or just a very small reusable everyday bag that will not do.
I need to get my act together on this. Yet in the back of my mind I have known the supermarkets are now offering a mix of alternatives to traditional plastic, either bags that have been produced with eco-friendly materials that biodegrade, or oxo-degradable varieties. Sounds green and good, right? Like I can help myself feel better about skipping the reusable bags, "just this once".
It's easy to hear "bio" or "degradable" and let yourself off the hook. And since the UAE Government has approved oxo-degradable bags as the country's alternative leading up to the ban on plastic bags due to take effect on January 1 2013, it's become even easier.
The reality, like most aspects of environmentalism, is much more complicated. And it drives home the point that reusable or recyclable is almost always better than items that are designed to be thrown away.
Tom Culver is a senior research engineer at RTI International, an independent, non-profit research institute in North Carolina that aims to improve the human condition. After spending an hour giving me the 101 on all things bio-bag, he echoed a similar personal opinion.
"A reusable cloth bag is the right solution to this, something that is produced once and you use it hundreds of times, to reduce the use of plastic," he said.
Of course not everyone - not even most people, or even a good fraction of them - use cloth bags 100 per cent of the time, particularly not in the throwaway UAE. But we really should try to.
A number of bio-plastic alternatives are gaining traction elsewhere, with versions made from renewable and sustainable corn, soy or jute. The technology, higher price and end result is far from where the industry wants it to be but opposed to bags produced using fossil fuels, they cut down on greenhouse gas emissions when they degrade, are recyclable and compostable.
The UAE's oxo-degradable choice, however, still uses conventional plastic made from petroleum-based polymers. The additives, usually metals, help it degrade faster - to carbon dioxide and water - when exposed to light and oxygen.
As of last year, all of the oxo-degradable bags in the UAE now need to be certified by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (Esma) to make sure they are safe for both the public and the environment. Esma has approved two additives - Reverte and D2W - for use in this process in the UAE and has applied rigorous standards to any company approved to produce the bags - including requiring labels indicating they are oxo-degradable.
The thing is, the perception from a "degradable" label on plastic is that over a period of time, it will disappear into nothing. This is where concerned consumers need to pay better attention and form their own opinions - because the available science, experts say, does not always back up the claim.
The companies that make these bags say they have independent lab tests that prove "biodegradation". Yet a study conducted in 2010 by scientists at Loughborough University in the UK for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the life cycle of the oxo-degradable varieties indicated otherwise. Among the findings:
• the ability of the oxo-versions to degrade depended on the environment they were in - so no one could predict when, or if, it would happen in all circumstances;
• the oxo-degradable plastics do not meet established composting standards;
• since they begin to degrade in the presence of heat and light, they are not fit to be recycled;
• they do not degrade in the kind of "anaerobic" conditions - where oxygen is absent - found in a landfill;
• any degrading that does happen still creates carbon emissions;
• the best way to get rid of them is incineration or sending to landfill, rendering the "degradability" aspect irrelevant.
Incineration and landfill are not exactly the wave of the future, environmentally speaking. And basically, no one can say for sure that these bags don't leave little bits of plastic behind, or what those bits of plastic might contain and, further, what longer-term impact that might have on the environment.
It is also important to distinguish between the terms oxo-degradable and biodegradable, which are often used interchangeably.
"Biodegradability" means that all elements of the plastic have been removed from the environment in a defined time frame and disposal environment, leaving nothing behind, said Ramani Narayan, a professor at Michigan State University's department of chemical engineering and materials science.
Narayan, considered a leading authority in the US on oxo-degradable plastics, does not believe they make very good alternatives. Beyond anecdotal evidence, scientists so far have not proved the bag makers' claims, he said.
Some countries, including Italy, have even succeeding in fining corporations making oxo-degradables over their claims on the issue.
As Narayan wrote in an e-mail: "Simply making plastics degrade, fragment or disappear from sight does not make the problem go away - it stays in the environment, and continues to cause serious environmental and human health consequences.
"It would be far better to leave plastics intact and collect it and recycle it or burn it for energy."
Writing on the issue last month at the environmental website Green Prophet, Tafline Laylin had a good suggestion for authorities: "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," she wrote. If disposed where plenty of heat, moisture and oxygen exist, the bags should degrade within two to 18 months. And if properly controlled, they need not leach trace metals into our waterways and soils."
Even Esma acknowledges that the oxo-degradable bags are "a good first solution" to the plastic that is choking our environment, not the answer.
The best option at the moment are the reusable cloth bags that Europe has taken to, and failing that, reusing any plastic bag as many times as possible before disposal, Mohammed Badri, Esma's acting director general, said last autumn.
"Here, our culture is different," he said. "We use a bag once and throw it away. This should change."
The bottom line? When it comes to minimising their impact on the environment, the burden again falls on consumers - who must educate themselves, try harder and do more, rather than simply accept whatever they are told.
Eco tip: Reduce your impact
I ordered Lebanese food for two the other night: a chicken, one container of tabbouleh and another of vine leaves. With the food came a giant, full package of pitta bread - at least a half dozen of the largest circles on the market. There were also several additional triangles of pita included with the order, which were more than sufficient. We did not even touch the large pitas. And although I tossed them in the freezer to hopefully use later, I can only imagine how much pita bread is wasted in this manner in this country. If they gave us a full package, what must a family of six receive with their order? Only consumers can get eateries to start thinking about this kind of food waste. Why not ask for smaller amounts of bread with your order next time? Sure, it will take a little extra time on the phone and in person but, hopefully, if enough people are thinking about it less food can be wasted.
Eco buy: Umbra Garbini
Producing conventional plastic uses an estimated 200,000 barrels of oil every day in the USA alone, which is why a growing number of manufacturers are switching to corn plastic, or PLA. A renewable resource that looks and acts like ordinary plastic, PLA is created from specially processed crops, eliminating the need to use oil and thus releasing fewer toxins and greenhouse gases during the manufacturing process.
One such manufacturer is Umbra which, together with the Egyptian designer Karim Rashid, has produced this neat little multipurpose high-gloss container that can be either a small waste bin, accessory holder or even a plant pot. Furthermore, in certain conditions corn plastic will also biodegrade into harmless natural compounds, easing the problem of plastic-clogged landfill waste. We also like its price - just Dh19. Available from The One Stores, nationwide.