Opinion: Debunking the myth about biodegradable plastics

As long as we can establish better recycling facilities, and promote more responsible public behaviour, we can reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills, streets, deserts and oceans, remarks Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).
Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA).

There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia – the region’s largest economy – is taking many positive and bold steps toward a new, sustainable economic future. One example is the recent move by the Saudi Arabian Standards Organisation (SASO) to make biodegradable plastics compulsory for a wide range of locally-manufactured and imported plastic products. This move signals a clear intent on the part of the country’s leadership to pursue policies that are consistent with prevalent initiatives underway across the globe.

Our leaders have long realised that a prosperous future is one where sustainability and economic diversification go hand in hand. And, while their vision is truly commendable and certainly worth pursuing, these are simply the first steps. To address the true scale of the issue, we need a holistic, forward-looking and well-rounded approach.

One of the main misconceptions about biodegradable plastics is that it starts to degrade in the environment almost immediately after being discarded. Contrary to this common belief, and as is now widely recognised by the scientific community, this is simply not true. Biodegradable plastics do not break down naturally into compost.

If left out in landfills, or deserts, or oceans, they can take up to 20 years just to break down into smaller pieces that are even more difficult to collect. Furthermore, degradation is only possible if the correct amount of micro-organisms, temperature and humidity are provided, which are difficult to find in a landfill environment.

Often made from farmed products, such as corn starch, biodegradable plastic products are generally being promoted as a more sustainable option. However, little is being said about their long-term environmental cost.

Using biomass as a raw material puts pressure on land availability and crop farming, thereby impacting global food production. In the right conditions, biodegradable plastics break down into carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions with serious repercussions for climate change.

Perpetuating the false notion that biodegradable plastics are a ‘guilt-free’ option conveys the wrong message, and far from putting an end to unmindful littering, it only enables the type of poor behaviour that has for decades exacerbated our plastic waste issue.

The truth is, biodegradable plastics are not a sustainable solution, as they cannot be recycled in conventional plastic streams, which means we end up putting millions of tons of a material into circulation that works against the pursuit of a ‘reduce,  reuse, recycle’ culture.

As it stands, recyclable plastics are still the most environmentally friendly choice, throughout their life cycle, versus other materials, due to several key benefits. To achieve wide-reaching behavioural change, it is imperative to communicate the full economic benefits of plastics, and that they can not only be recycled but also be converted to a range of products, which contribute to sustainability and enhance the quality of our lives.

With domestic job creation being the cornerstone of Saudi Vision 2030, the opportunities for growth in the industry are promising when a combination of investment in recycling facilities and public participation takes effect. This will also attract investment into other industries supported by plastics, further generating job opportunities for young Saudis.

The plastic industry has delivered immense value to the Saudi economy and society. But further value can be unlocked with the development of a local recycling industry. In this regard, the government has a major role to play and needs to take the lead in driving policies conducive to recycling.

Dr Abdulwahab Al-Sadoun is secretary general of the Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA). Set up in March 2006, GPCA is a dedicated non-profit association, serving its members with industry data and information sources. It is the first such association to represent the interests of the petrochemical and chemical industry in the Arabian Gulf. The eighth GPCA Fertiliser Convention will take place during 26-28 September 2017 at Ritz Carlton, Bahrain, under the theme, ‘New beginnings: Return to growth’.

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