Plastics are being talked about again, thanks to the United Nations Environment Programme’s #beatplasticpollution campaign, backed in turn by a growing chorus worldwide against the material in its many avatars. In India, (this year’s host of World Environment Day on June 5), the conversation has shifted from refusing plastic bags – an old favorite – to fighting single-use plastics more broadly. Amid this din, I have witnessed the middle class search for biodegradable plastics or bioplastics, which contain a percentage of renewable materials such as plants and are said to be less polluting. It strikes me as a sign of plastic addiction rather than booting out plastics.
There are alternatives to several single-use plastics – a bottle to replace ketchup sachets, leaf or biomass-based plates instead of styrofoam. But for many other plastic types, the only valid alternative is a lifestyle shift. Plastic bin liners, one of the most popular varieties of bioplastics and the most in demand, are a strong case in point.
People use bin liners to keep their dustbins free of the gooey waste that needs washing out. They then hand over their waste to the waste collector, separated or mixed – depending on how diligent they are – in neat little (bio)plastic packages. Yet, if they composted their waste at home, they would not need a bioplastic bag (even if it is itself compostable). To be a home composter, all they need to do is put a double sheet of newspaper at the bottom of the wet waste bin (coloured green, says Indian law) and then tip it all into a composting device. Or, like people who manage their time better, just dump the wet waste in the compost bin directly.
When I began composting at home as a student, I met with only two disasters. I used a plastic crate with earthworms and gobar manure. Once, a few worms crawled out and into the bedroom, and needed to be re-captured and returned to duty. Later, my fat cat took a good roll in the compost crate and filled it with his fur. Other than that, it was easy. Now, in the last half-decade, it has become even easier, and so much more sophisticated. Despite this, those who look around for where they can buy compostable bin liners are often unwilling to try composting at home. They would rather be status quoists, something they describe as taking baby (green) steps. Except that they are not being green. They cannot – it is to do with the nature of the beast.
How clean are bioplastics really?
Bioplastics claim to degrade in different ways. I will not detail how many still contain traditional plastics and eventually break down into micro-plastics (less than 5 mm in size). They cause enormous harm to the ecosystems they get embedded in. In 2009, the Central Pollution Control Board tested 10 bioplastic samples but found only 40% cleared the test for biodegradability. Although consumers have no way to test each bioplastic, let us optimistically assume more than 40% will pass the test now, nine years later. Does that even matter?
One type of bioplastic is marketed as compostable, but the global concern is that it needs industrial composting facilities to break down fully. This is unviable in India, since our industrial facilities compost toxic-mixed waste, if they function at all. Besides, if Indians cannot even compost a banana peel, why do we trust ourselves to compost a compostable plastic bag? We simply do not have the systems. Then there is my biggest concern about compostable plastic: it would take around 40 days to compost (if it does), during which time it would have already been ingested by several small animal forms, with a likely injurious impact.
A second type of bioplastic is photo-degradable plastic, which degrades on exposure to light. I have quite a few such bags tied to my balcony. I put them there in July 2016 and they are still intact, capable of causing all the harm traditional plastics do.
A third type claims biodegradability on exposure to water. The only standards on this require that within six months, the plastic must have disintegrated into bits smaller than 2 millimetres and that biodegradation must have progressed so that at least 30% of the carbon has been converted by microorganisms (such as bacteria) into carbon dioxide. This leaves the plastic to contaminate the seas for six months and more. And if they touch the bottom of the sea, they may not degrade at all, because it is much colder than the 30 degrees Celsius that is their ideal degradation temperature. According to scientists, such micro-plastics cause extreme damage to marine life.
All this apart, we cannot tell bioplastics from regular plastics in our trash, even if they came with a mark. In a country that will not segregate wet and dry waste, it is unlikely that even the best bioplastics will be pulled out for treatment. The degradability issue apart, plastics contain toxic additives that are released into the environment.
Stop looking for substitutes
What do we glean from all this information?
There is no good reason to switch to bioplastics, and a lot of folks know this. Yet, a popular logic around making the switch anyway is that something is better than nothing.
Something is certainly better than nothing, but that something is reducing what we consume, not greening our consumption. If we want to beat plastic pollution, we have to stop looking for fake-green, or even green, substitutes for our everyday practices. No substitute is needed for bin liners, plastic straws, cling wrap, wet wipes – the type of plastics middle-class India uses or hopes to be able to use. Instead of modifying shopping lists, people should make their peace with their waste being stored in a paper-lined or unlined bin, or see that their cocktail is still pleasurable without a straw, understand that food can be kept in a box instead of being wrapped, and that babies can be kept “clean and fresh” by using old-fashioned water and a towel instead of wet wipes.
As we stand in 2018, we must know that no part of our lives can be greened without elements of inconvenience. This is our truth, and our triumphant way forward. We have come to our tragic if clumsy colonisation of the soils, air, seas and rivers through our collective quest for convenience. Plastics are the most visible indictor of this. They will not reduce without our collective sacrifice. There isn’t another way to embrace the planet that has nurtured us for many millennia.
This is the second part of a three-part series on fighting the waste crisis responsibly. Read the other parts here.
Bharati Chaturvedi is Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.