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Is plastic the enemy No. 1?

Praseeda Nair / 28 December 2011

DUBAI - The government has decided to ban non-biodegradable plastic bags in the UAE, but environmental experts claim that this step may not be enough to resolve the country’s growing plastic pollution problem.

Statistics released by the Ministry of Environment and Water indicate that nearly 12 billion plastic bags are used in the UAE yearly, prompting the decision to ban all non-biodegradable plastic bags by 2013. The new regulations will require plastic bag manufacturers to stock up on degradable additives that speed up the decomposition of plastic in landfills. All plastics that are degradable will bear a “Mark of Conformity” that shows they meet the government standards, as established by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (ESMA).

Dr Laura Hensley, specialist in Environmental Waste Management, explained the difference between non-biodegradable plastics and eco-friendly alternatives. “Plastic is supposed to outlast any other material in the world, which also means that it may take thousands of years to break down. Biodegradable plastic bags, however, break down into carbon dioxide, methane, water and biomass in a fraction of the time. If biodegradable bags start populating landfills, the release of methane (a greenhouse gas) could adversely affect the environment,” she told Khaleej Times.

The additives in many degradable plastics are even more harmful to the environment than non-degradable plastics in that the additives simply break the plastic down to tiny particles that are invisible to the naked eye. The toxic substances seep into the soil and can pose a threat to our eco-system, and just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Some of the companies approved by the ESMA like Eco Polymers offer degradable additives that eliminate methane as a by-product, cutting down the greenhouse effect these plastics usually tend to pose when decomposing in landfills. Still, Dr Hensley says that there is no conclusive evidence that degradable plastics are better for the environment in the long run.

“What people forget is that plastic can always be recycled. Only 30 per cent of the energy that is needed to make plastic, including the degradable type, from fossil fuels is needed to make it out of recycled materials,” she added.

The biggest concern for officials, such as Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, Secretary-General of the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD), points to plastic bag disposal after its use. “Once used, most (bags) end up in a landfill, or they become litter and find their way to our sea, streets and deserts. Half the camel deaths each year in the UAE are due to camels ingesting plastic bags. Floating plastic bags also pose a threat to sea turtles and other biodiversity when they mistakenly swallow them for food.”

Even though the nationwide campaign to reduce non-biodegradable plastic bags has been in place since October 2009, the number of camel mortality due to plastic ingestion has increased from about 33 per cent to 50 per cent in the past two years, which may say more about the improper disposal of plastic bags than of the material itself.

From a dirhams-and-fils perspective, plastics is the most cost-effective alternative than anything else, which may keep the petrochemical industry pumping for decades to come. “In the recent years, we have witnessed the failure of markets to allocate funds to good investments. What we need now is a new energy revolution, one that has already begun. Investments are already flowing into low-carbon technologies,” Dr Mattia Romani, Senior Visiting Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, told Khaleej Times at last month’s LG Greenomics Conference.

The solution, according to green experts, is to find a middle path between fossil fuel-based energy sources and green alternatives. “Alternative energy sources are heavily dependent on the plastics industry. Everything from solar panels to wind turbines are made of plastic, owing to its durability. Also, plastic used in the manufacturing of large machines, airplanes, cars and so on results in them being lighter and more fuel-efficient, in turn emitting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s a circular argument at the end of the day. Plastic has had bad publicity over the decades, mostly due to overuse by the manufacturers and poor waste management on the part of the public,” Dr Hensley added.

For a world less dependent on natural resources, experts suggest attacking the pollution problem by increasing public awareness to prevent littering. “Rather than using additives to dissolve the problem, we should be looking at how to reduce the use of these bags, reuse the ones we have, and recycle plastic bags that are at the end of their life cycle. We could also switch to jute or cotton bags for daily use, like people in many countries have been doing for centuries.”


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