Plastics SA and SAPRO warn against use of ‘degradable’ plastics

Submitted by: Jonathan Ramayia, Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Plastics SA and SAPRO have released a position paper warning against the use  of degradable, biodegradable and oxo-degradable plastics (broadly, ‘degradable’ plastics). The Paper, entitled ‘Plastics|SA’s view on Degradable, Biodegradable and Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics’, is aimed at the public, media and packaging decision-makers. “We felt the need to produce [the] paper as there has been misinformation on the environmental benefit of some of the plastics”, said Annabe Pretorius of Plastics SA.

A second concern is that the continued use of these plastics could affect the integrity of plastics recycling gains that have been made over the past few years in South Africa. “If a product that is bio-degradable, degradable or oxo-degradable enters the plastics recycling stream, the recycled plastic that comes out at the end could be lower quality which would act to reduce consumer confidence in recycled plastic”, says Pretorius.

Life cycle assessments and environmental impact

A key point of discussion in the paper is that products that are broadly degradable are often sold under the pretext that they have a lower impact on the environment. According to Pretorius, degradable products such as take-away coffee cups have become successful because they have a “feel-good” factor attached to them, “people think these products will help protect the earth if they buy them and they are being marketed as a way of reducing the country’s general litter problem”, she says.

But according to the paper, degradable products aren’t necessarily the better environmental option and the paper recommends that “any product environmental impact should be measured against comprehensive Life Cycle Assessments together with costs evaluations”. Simply put, the energy costs of producing that degradable plastic are ignored, “when you dispose of that degradable plastic, that is the end of its life, and for every new piece of packaging you require the energy costs of producing it increases”, explains Pretorius.

Recycled plastic on the other hand, though not degradable, could result in less energy needing to be produced, since products are being re-used time and time again, she added. Concerning oxo-degradable plastics, i.e. plastics that are partially degradable when they go to landfill, the paper notes that there is still a proportion of this that comes from petroleum sources, so oxo-degradable plastics are even more energy intensive than purely degradable plastics.

Contamination of plastic waste streams

A key concern highlighted in the paper is the proliferation of these ‘degradable’ plastics on the market and the confusion between whether these plastics are recyclable or meant to be disposed of in landfills. Due to poor labelling and these plastics appearing to be ‘real’ plastic, i.e. plastics made from petroleum, consumers who recycle put them together, which can cause problems in quality of the recycled plastics.

According to Pretorius a problem of this nature was encountered a few years ago where Albany Bread packets which were oxo-degradable were recycled. Ordinarily, this plastic was thought to be highly desirable from a quality point of view but also because they are generally clean, explains Pretorius.

“The recycled bread bags began to supply the building film industry, for undertile films and dampcourse films, however complaints were received regarding the quality of film”, says Pretorius.

Although the bread bags were not directly linked to the lower quality of the building materials, it was a “weird coincidence” that the complaints were received after the use of these oxy-degradable plastic materials, she noted. The brand owner who used these plastics decided to stop further orders.

To address the broader problem of contamination of the plastics recycling stream, Plastics SA are currently working with SABS to generate a label for bio-plastics so that consumers are clear on what to recycle and what not to recycle.

In the meantime, companies like Woolworths are taking it upon themselves to clearly state on their products what can be recycled and what should go into normal rubbish, and recently convened a meeting with other retail giants in the country to encourage the same.

Market place for degradable plastics

Pretorius says that in spite of the paper’s hardline against ‘degradable’ plastics, there is a still a place for these products on the market. “If someone invented cigarette stompies [butts] and baby nappies that were degradable then this would be beneficial as even though predominantly plastic, they are virtually unrecyclable”, she adds.

BASF, a chemical manufacturing company, has recently introduced a degradable plastic product called the Ecovio plastic bag. The bag is compostable and consists of 45% polylactic acid (PLA) (by weight) and is made from corn. In this type of product, microorganisms ‘attack’ the plastic degrading it within a few weeks without leaving behind any residues. The Ecovio plastic bag has been used creatively by a residential estate, Kyalami Estates, where residents collect their kitchen waste in Ecovio plastic bags and deposit them in skips. Once the skips are filled, a nitrogen rich compost is formed and re-used on the estate.  

Peter Pfundtner of BASF, believes that there are suitable cases in South Africa where degradable plastics can be introduced, “there are many segments in the South African market, where we can place our products and/or system solutions with economical and environmental benefits compared to fossil based not-degradable plastics”. Pfundtner lists that such segments include organic waste collection where organic waste bags are used; the agricultural industry where mulch film is used and in fresh food packaging.

Challenges within the plastics industry in South Africa

According to Rico Euripidou of Environmental NGO, Groundwork, there are however broader problems and challenges within the plastics industry that need to be addressed. He notes that although there is legislation that requires improved waste management in South Africa, that this is not being implemented correctly, “the flow of litter and toxins from the plastic industry into the environment, and into people’s bodies with chemicals such as EDC’s etc., is continuing. There is an uncontrolled use of plastics in many applications, and there is no independent verification of the claims made by the plastics industry.”

He adds that there is no South African testing of plastic products and that many plastic products, including in packaging, are also still not clearly labelled. A fundamental problem with the industry, as Euripidou points out, is that the industry is refereed by themselves, “the plastics industry (manufacturing, packaging and recycling) itself wants to be the player and the referee when it comes to policing the industry and the environment - and in the process, protecting people and the environment from themselves, themselves,” he adds.

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Jonathan Ramayia