x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Are biodegradable bags in the UAE doing more harm than good?

Degradable bags seen as a solution to the UAE's litter problem may not be as environmentally friendly as first thought.

Waitrose supermarket uses oxo-biodegradable bags which the Ministry of Environment and Water recommends. Pawan Singh / The National
Waitrose supermarket uses oxo-biodegradable bags which the Ministry of Environment and Water recommends. Pawan Singh / The National

ABU DHABI // Biodegradable plastic carrier bags aimed at reducing litter could be doing more harm than good.

Standard plastic bags have been banned in supermarkets since the beginning of the year. The Ministry of Environment and Water recommends oxo-biodegradable bags, which break down much faster than normal plastic, as a replacement. Supporters of the bags say they are scientifically proven to work.

However, some environmentalists and recyclers question whether they degrade as fully as their proponents claim.

"There is no concrete evidence regarding the claim that those bags will degrade," said Dr Abdulwahab Sadoun, secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association. "These materials contain special additives that break up the plastic into tiny particles, which remain in the environment and potentially cause greater long-term damage."

Dr Sadoun said only 8 per cent of plastics were recycled, and a better solution would be to encourage people to reuse bags and set up recycling schemes.

"We would like to see science-based policies that do not harm the industry or the environment," he said.

A plastics recycling factory in Al Ain said last year the bags were difficult to recycle and often polluted its product.

But proponents of the bags say they are proven to work.

"This is not philosophy or religion, this is science. It is something you measure in a laboratory," said Winston Pryce, General Manager of Eco-Polymers, a company that supplies additives used in the production of the bags.

At the end of their lives, oxo-degradable bags disintegrate in two steps, first breaking down into small pieces and then undergoing chemical changes that make them suitable for consumption by naturally occurring bacteria.

"Microbes continue to feed on these until the conversion is complete," Mr Pryce said. In the end the bags "are totally converted into carbon dioxide, water and biomass".

He said the performance of the bags could be measured against international standards including ASTM6954 in the United States, and BS8472 in the United Kingdom.

However, critics of the bags - in particular manufacturers of plastics using starch and other plant-based alternatives - say that such standards do not specify pass or fail requirements for biodegradability.

Manufacturers of oxo-biodegradable products must meet the requirements of the Emirates Conformity Assessment System.

The Government is preparing to widen its ban on non-degradable plastics next year. The new rules will apply to a range of items such as disposable cutlery and table wear, stretch film, bubble wrap and bags used for bakery items, nuts and sweets, tablecloths made of polyethylene, and bags used to wrap newspapers and magazines.

The Ministry of Environment and Water plans to ban such products using regular plastic from January next year and recently ordered manufacturers to register 15 new types of product using degradable plastic by December 1 this year.

Aisha Al Abdooli, an expert at the chemicals and hazardous wastes department at the ministry, said she was not concerned about the possibility of oxo-degradable plastics causing pollution. The process of degradation "does not leave fragments of petro-polymers in the soil", she said.

Governments in Europe have chosen to encourage recycling efforts, but Ms Al Abdooli said that "from an environmental point of view biodegradable plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than plastic recycling".

She said the UAE's aim was to limit the negative effects of regular plastic.

"Such an aim will be achieved through cutting down the quantity of these bags in the UAE as a gradual step for the final prohibition and replacement with the biodegradable plastic bags," she said.