Technological remedies to plastic waste in the Mediterranean are themselves risky

Marine environments are the most commonly affected by dumping and, with a projected 2 billion tonnes of plastic being produced by 2050, the exact amount that might reach the oceans is not known.
Saturday 26/10/2019
Environmental dilemma. Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles on the seaside of Ouzai in Lebanon. (AFP)
Environmental dilemma. Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles on the seaside of Ouzai in Lebanon. (AFP)

Plastic is a material that is typically disposed of through dumping. A report by French newspaper La Tribune stated that 22 countries dump a collective 600,000 tonnes of plastic into the Mediterranean each year.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is an alternative used in MENA that, when exposed to the open environment, converts into biodegradable materials. However, it carries risks.

Plastic’s use is widespread, appearing in phones, computers and other equipment of modern life. Its core flaw is that when disposed of, it remains for hundreds of years and, once dumped, it breaks into microplastics.

Microplastics persist in the environment, with marine and aquatic ecosystems the most affected. The fragmentation process is caused by biological and physical factors, including photodegradation triggered by sunlight, which reduces the debris to an undetectable size.

Marine environments are the most commonly affected by dumping and, with a projected 2 billion tonnes of plastic being produced by 2050, the exact amount that might reach the oceans is not known. A UN report stated that “plastic debris, or litter, in the ocean is now ubiquitous.”

Oxo-biodegradation is defined as “degradation resulting from oxidative and cell-mediated phenomena, either simultaneously or successively” by the European Committee for Standardisation.

Regions such as the United Arab Emirates have enacted legislation requiring the use of oxo-biodegradable technology in all everyday plastic items. The plastics are made in the same way as normal plastics but have a catalyst added, changing the products’ molecular structure from plastic. In theory, the cost of producing oxo-bio plastics is very little.

In May 2012, Intertek, an assurance, inspection, product testing and certification company, confirmed in a life-cycle assessment that oxo-bio plastic had the best life cycle of all the materials used in the making of carrier bags and similar plastic products. Peter Susman, a former deputy judge for the High Court in England, recently released an independent review for the scientific evidence which concluded that:

Technology for oxo-biodegradable technology is compatible with recycling and composting.

Via algae, bacteria or fungi, the biodegradation of plastics in seawater or air has been facilitated by oxo-plastic to occur within a reasonable time, causing the plastic to exist as such while avoiding toxicity and at a rate far sooner than ordinary plastics.

The benefit is reducing contributions to the “scourge of plastic pollution” of land and sea.

One of the advantages of oxo-biodegradation is that, while ordinary plastic can only be recycled when collected, oxo-bio plastics would, in theory, be recycled into nature.

However, they are not alternatives to waste management because they can be recycled and reused and are designed to biodegrade only when the product reaches the open environment, provided it has not been collected for recycling. Over the past four years, enough of the plastic masterbatch has been sold to make approximately 600,000 tonnes of oxo-bio products.

Only bacteria and oxygen are necessary to trigger oxo-biodegradation, negating the need for special conditions. When these plastics end up in aquatic or land environments, they degrade into harmless residues within a few months or, at most, several years.

The timescale differences are caused by conditions in the environment, with heat and sunlight accelerating the process, and the plastic product formulation, with some designed to degrade at a faster rate.

This is not the end-all solution it seems. Results from various UN studies revealed there is not enough evidence to assure the materials would biodegrade in marine environments within reasonable time and that no recognised standards exist to serve as benchmarks, allowing for certification.

A report about oxo-plastics published by the European Union stated that, even under the assumption that these plastics could fragment in the marine environment to a biodegradable levels, marine-based processes would be expected to occur at a much slower rate than land based because of lower concentrations of bacteria and oxygen.

With marine dumping being the second-highest source of waste, this increases the chances of prolonged damages to the MENA environment. The report stated that experiments for oxo-plastic biodegradation were carried out over too short a time to fully demonstrate biodegradation and that the resulting molecular weight reduction measurements were extrapolated following certain models.

As such, they concluded there was not sufficient evidence that the fragmentation was rapid enough to lead to reduced molar weight that would allow for subsequent biodegradation to occur during projected time frames.

A similar report by the United Nations stated that oxo-plastics can threaten marine ecosystems even following fragmentation. It said it should be assumed that microplastics resulting from fragmentation would remain in the ocean, where they would be consumed by organisms, which could result in harmful algal species, microbes and pathogens.

Michel Stephen, who heads the  Oxobiodegradable Plastics Association, told The Arab Weekly that "oxo-biodegradable plastic was not invented as an 'end-all solution' but to deal at little or no extra cost with the failure of waste-management, by making the plastic biodegrade much more quickly if it escapes into the open environment. It is not necessary or desirable for it to degrade in landfill."

"We remain in no doubt that oxo-biodegradable plastic is much better for the environment than ordinary plastic, and the UAE did the right thing by banning ordinary plastic for everyday items," he added. "The rest of the world should do the same."

Still, further research into the supposed benefits of oxo-plastics is needed. British Environment Minister Dan Norris said confusion has been created for consumers because of the term “biodegradable” and that incorrect disposal of these plastics could negatively affect composting and recycling facilities.

Oxo-biodegradable plastics are not as safe as they have been made out to be and, while serving as an alternative, they are not the solution to the plethora of plastic waste produced each year. However, studies into safer and more renewable plastics are taking place, as well as moves to identify possible products to phase out the use of this difficult-to-dispose-of material.