Plastic ban at what price?

What would happen if plastic carry bags are banned? Partial ban on plastic bags that several local bodies in the State implemented at various stages has fallen flat so far primarily due to faulty implementation. Secondly, the non-availability of feasible alternatives has been dissuading administrators from opting for a complete ban. Assuming that lax implementation is an issue that can be addressed and rectified, it might be time to look at the second issue.

Paper bags

Though paper is the first option, it cannot be counted as an environment-friendly option considering the large-scale destruction of trees for paper pulp and also because they cannot hold much weight. Though recycled paper bags have become a trend, common people may not find them pocket-friendly. Up-cycled paper bags using newspapers may be used for purposes other than packaging liquid and semi liquid products.

Non-woven bags

Cloth is the next choice, though the non-woven bags that pass off as cloth bags in most shops these days are equally or even more dangerous than plastic bags.

“Those bags are 98% polypropylene. They can neither be recycled nor composted. They emit carcinogenic fumes when burned,” said Vasundhara Menon, a dentist-turned-environmental activist who got the non-woven bags tested at the Centre for Biopolymer Science and Technology in Kochi.

“I gave the test reports to officials and Ministers of all departments concerned. But there has been no response,” she said alleging that vendors across the State have been shifting to non-woven bags slowly as they have been misguided that it is cloth. Some shops have been selling cloth bags, though the cloth being used is polyester, equivalent to plastic, rather than cotton, which should be ideally used. Real cotton cloth bags are environment- friendly and can hold reasonable weight, but are heavy on the pocket. Neither can they be used to carry liquids.

Biodegradable plastic

The third option is biodegradable plastic that comes in several varieties.

There are starch-based bioplastics that are soluble in hot water. There is also compostable plastic that disintegrates and joins the soil within 90 to 180 days.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had suggested bioplastics as a viable alternative for plastic carry bags in a notification issued in March 2016.

There are four bioplastic manufacturers in India that have been approved by the Central Pollution Control Board as manufacturers of compostable plastic and follow the ISO 17008:2008 standards. Their products have also been tested at the Central Institute of Plastic Engineering and Technology. These bags are slightly costlier than normal plastic carry bags, but not as much as paper or cloth bags.

“Large-scale use of bio-compostable plastics would put a huge demand on agriculture to increase the production of tapioca, corn and potato though they can even be made out of water hyacinth. In a way, it would benefit agriculture in the country and in turn our farmers,” said Santhosh Kandamchira, general secretary of Green Fraternity, a Kottayam-based environmental organisation, that has been promoting bio-compostable carry bags for over a year now. He said the vendors preferred these bags as they served the purpose of plastic carry bags and freed the vendors from being penalised for sale of thin plastic carry bags.

“The 50 microns rule is not applicable to bio-compostable bags and hence the vendor gets more quantity at a lower price,” Mr. Kandamchira said.

The advantage of bio-compostable bags is that they can be composted along with biodegradable waste.

“They are technically and theoretically reliable. But they cannot be differentiated from a normal plastic carry bag very easily and hence there are chances of vendors passing off plastic bags as bio-compostable material. However, they can be identified through proper test,” said lawyer and environmental activist Harish Vasudevan.

Oxo-biodegradable bags

‘Oxo-biodegradable’ bags that are in supply in some high-end shops are being mistaken for compostable material. “The Oxo-biodegradable material is plastic that degrades after some time. They become invisible, but pollute the atmosphere, water bodies as well as soil with micro plastic particles. We breathe them in every day,” Dr. Vasundhara Menon said.

With so many options, finding the right alternative for plastic carry bags is a tricky matter and only large-scale awareness at the grassroots can ensure that another hazardous material does not substitute plastic in the State.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 2:54:00 PM |

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