The big green furphy: experts bust degradable plastic bag myth

4th August 2016

Next time you accept a degradable plastic bag at the supermarket, think again – you may be doing little to help the environment and adding dangerous microplastics to rivers and oceans, experts say.
The warning has prompted a Senate committee to call for a public awareness campaign to explain the differences between degradable, biodegradable, compostable and traditional plastic bags – and how they should be disposed of – to educate consumers who mistakenly believe they are doing the right thing.
“Degradable” plastics, commonly used for shopping and rubbish bags, contain additives that make them disintegrate more quickly than traditional plastics. Some people also refer to these products as “biodegradable”.

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While such bags do not remain for decades in the environment as large debris, they can break into smaller and smaller particles until they become microplastics – tiny plastic fragments less than five millimetres in size.
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When microplastics enter the marine environment they can choke seabirds, poison wildlife and accumulate up the food chain, turning up in seafood eaten by humans.
A Senate committee last week produced a report into the “toxic tide” of marine plastic pollution, including plastic shopping bags.

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Tony Underwood, University of Sydney emeritus professor of experimental ecology, told the inquiry that biodegradable plastic may become less obvious to the naked eye over time, but was an “invisible idiot”.
“[It] simply turns it into smaller forms of plastic more quickly,” he said. “It is not a solution to anything much, unless we are quite happy to shift it all into particle-sized plastics rather than plastic bag-sized plastic.”
University of Queensland academic Kathy Townsend told the committee that consumers were largely confused about different types of bags, and using the terms “degradable” and “biodegradable” plastic inspired more littering because people wrongly believed it would “degrade and go away”.
The rapid disintegration of such plastic also makes it “available to animals much faster than it would be otherwise”, she said.
University of NSW biodiversity expert Mark Browne cited research comparing biodegradable and traditional plastic bags, saying “we put them on a mudflat and looked at the changes in animals and plants that lived among them, and they both caused the same impact”.
The committee said the term “biodegradable” could also refer to “fully biodegradable” or “compostable” plastics generally made from plant materials which return to base organic components when processed by commercial composting facilities.
Clean Up Australia managing director Terrie-Ann Johnson told the inquiry of a large Australian retailer – understood to be Target – that introduced compostable bags but experienced a “customer backlash … because they were not strong enough”.
She said people often wrongly thought compostable containers could break down in backyard compost, when they required commercial composting units, and “there are not enough … units in the country to take them”.
The committee, dominated by Labor and Greens members, noted community confusion over plastic bag types, their disposal and their various environmental effects. It called on the government to encourage states and territories to run targeted education campaigns aiming to change consumer behaviour on plastic use and provide information about alternatives.

Manish Paul

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A greener plastic bag… or nappy?

4th August 2016

By Chris Doyle
Last updated: 8th July 2015
Pick any product off a supermarket shelf and there’s a good chance it’s either made from plastic or packaged with it in one form or another. Not surprisingly, all this plastic adds up. Australians send more than a million tonnes of plastic waste to landfill every year, where it will sit for generations as it ever-so-slowly breaks down.

In an effort to tackle the growing waste problem, some plastic products are now being made so they break down more readily. But do these so-called ‘biodegradable’ plastics really give you a chance to outlive a muesli bar wrapper? Or is it just clever spin aimed at grabbing your green dollar?

More than just grocery bags

The conversation on biodegradable plastics has so far focused on supermarket shopping bags, and for good reason. As a nation we use nearly four billion of them every year, according to Planet Ark.

But there are many other products in which biodegradable plastics are already being used. “You can find them in almost anything out there, it just depends on the region you are in and the brands that are available to you,” says Teresa Clark from US-based plastics manufacturer ENSO.
Clark says biodegradable plastics are targeted at replacing those items you usually use once and throw in the rubbish bin, like the plastic that holds your breakfast cereal or the packaging on kids’ toys. Some products already available in Australia include bin liners, cling film, sandwich bags and nappies, with more products expected to roll out in the near future.

What does biodegradable mean?

Something is considered biodegradable if it can be broken down by living things, usually by microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. When it comes to plastic, however, the meaning of biodegradable gets a little more complicated.

There are certain conditions, like temperature and moisture, which affect how well a plastic breaks down. This means a biodegradable plastic will not simply break down wherever it ends up. If it is not disposed of correctly or ends up as litter, it might not break down at all.

In Australia, the term biodegradable usually refers to plastics that are ‘compostable’, meaning they will break down when placed in a home compost bin or commercial composting facility. When disposed of correctly, a compostable plastic will almost completely biodegrade within six months – a big improvement on the 100-plus years it would take for something like a normal plastic bag to break down in landfill.

There is an Australian standard that specifies the conditions that must be met for a plastic to be considered compostable, but it is voluntary for manufacturers to verify that their products conform to the standard. Rowan Williams, president of the Australasian Bioplastics Association, which administers the verification scheme in Australia, says it’s easy to know if a plastic has been verified by looking at the label (see How do I know it’s biodegradable?). “Unless it is verified, then it may not actually be compostable,” he says.

Can I put compostable plastics in my rubbish bin?

You sure can – but it will be of little benefit. Most of the general (non-recyclable) rubbish in your bin ends up at the local landfill, and the idea behind compostable plastic is to divert the plastic from landfill altogether.

“They may eventually biodegrade in landfill, but it will be very slow and there would be little point in doing that,” says Williams. “It is a feel-good factor, in terms of buying the compostable plastic, but it’s not something that you should do if that is where it will end up.”

And if compostable plastics end up as litter, there is also no guarantee they will break down.

So where can they go?

If the plastic is labelled ‘home compostable’, then it can go in your home compost bin. But the majority of products currently available are labelled ‘compostable’, meaning they need to go to a commercial composting facility, where they get treated with high temperatures to create an organic-rich soil that can be on-sold.

Williams says there are around 150 of these facilities in Australia, but not many of them are in the major cities. “If you’ve got the place for these plastics to go then it works beautifully, but today in mainstream Australia there is no guarantee that a compostable plastic will go to a composting site because they are not that prevalent.”

Some local councils provide easy access to composting facilities through their kerbside waste collections. In South Australia, for example, kerbside collection of compostable waste, including food waste, is provided in most local council areas.

If your local council allows you to put food scraps into your green organics bin along with your garden waste, then there is a chance that waste may be going to a commercial composting facility – check with your local council to be sure.

If you don’t have access to a commercial composting facility, you can contact the Australian Organics Recycling Association to find the nearest facility that’s a member of the association.

What if it’s not compostable?

You may come across products that are labelled ‘biodegradable’ but don’t claim to be compostable. These products should not be disposed of in a composting facility or in your home compost bin. The best way to dispose of these plastics depends on the product, but it should be written on the label. For example, we’ve come across plastic products labelled as ‘landfill biodegradable’, which means they can be disposed of in your general rubbish.

Also, look on the label for how long it will take for the plastic to break down and by how much (for example, 100% biodegradable means the entire product will biodegrade). Unlike for compostable plastic, there is no Australian standard for labelling a product as biodegradable, which means there is no time limit on how long it must take to break down. A product can be called biodegradable if it takes two years to break down or if it takes 10 years – just so long as it eventually happens.

‘Degradable’ is not biodegradable

Plastic and plastic-wrapped products have popped up on supermarket shelves carrying the label ‘degradable’ or ‘oxo-degradable’. These products should not be confused with biodegradable plastics, as they do not require living organisms to break down. Instead, chemical additives are used in the plastic to make it crumble more quickly than it would otherwise.

Degradable plastics can help reduce the amount of plastic litter that we see, but the plastic is still there, just in smaller pieces. And smaller pieces of plastic litter can actually be hazardous to more wildlife.

For example, Dr Denise Hardesty, a research scientist with the CSIRO, says small pieces of plastic are having harmful effects on marine animals.

“Parts of a plastic bottle or plastic bag may be more accessible to larger marine species like turtles and seals, but those same items become accessible to more and more species in the food chain as they break down,” Hardesty explains.

Fish, crustaceans and even corals are known to eat small pieces of plastic, mistaking them for food. And as these smaller animals get eaten by larger ones, Hardesty says the plastic accumulates up the food chain, affecting more and more species as it goes.

How do I know it’s biodegradable?

The label should tell you all you need to know, but there can be some other confusing terms on there as well. Here’s our guide to what – and what not – to look for.

Look for these terms:

Biodegradable will biodegrade, but generally not as quickly as compostable plastic. Look for products that state they are 100% biodegradable and show the disposal method.
Compostable will biodegrade in a commercial compost facility. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 4736-2006) on the label.
Home compostable is the best option if you have a home compost bin. Look for the Australian Standard number (AS 5810-2010) on the label.
But look out for these:

Bio- or plant-based means the plastic is made from plant materials rather than fossil fuels, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it is biodegradable or compostable.
Bioplastic is a confusing industry term that has two meanings – it could mean the plastic is biodegradable/compostable or that it is made from plant materials. Ignore this term, as it’s not reliable.
Degradable is neither biodegradable nor compostable.

Reduce your plastic waste

The best way to reduce your plastic waste is to use as little plastic as possible. Here are our top tips for reducing your plastic waste:

Say no to plastic bags, not only at the supermarket checkout but also when picking up your takeaway from local restaurants and food outlets. Check out our guide to sustainable shopping bags.
Buy your fruit and vegetables loose and avoid pre-packaged ones. Don’t put your fruit in the small plastic barrier bags at the supermarket – it might take a little longer at the checkout but the plastic you save will be significant.
Store leftovers in a reusable container rather than covering them with cling film.
Choose products that have as little plastic packaging as possible. For example, if you buy rolled oats, look for brands that use cardboard packaging rather than plastic.
Use a lunchbox and ditch sandwich bags and cling film altogether.
If your local council doesn’t require you to wrap your rubbish, try not using a bin liner. Wrap wet food scraps in a small amount of newspaper before putting them in the bin and hose your bin out regularly.
Also remember to recycle your plastic waste where possible.

Manish Paul

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Plastic waste: killer of the seas

4th August 2016

When researchers examined the stomach contents of 13 sperm whales that washed up on Germany’s North Sea coast this year, they discovered further compelling evidence of how plastic waste plays havoc with the environment both on land and at sea.

The guts of the stranded giants were stuffed with plastic. According to the experts, the whales were probably forced into shallow waters by unusual weather patterns shifting their food sources.

After straying into the shallows, the whales could not support their own body weight; their internal organs collapsed and the creatures died of heart failure.

Plastic rubbish festoons our oceans. By 2050, it is forecast to grow fivefold to equal the weight of all fish life. And each piece of waste remains adrift for centuries.

Researchers are only beginning to realise the long-term consequences of this man-made but entirely preventable danger.
And after more than a decade of procrastination, Australia’s most populous state has pushed forward plans to tackle the recovery of empty plastic bottles. Despite industry objections over cost, NSW is joining South Australia and the Northern Territory in running a container deposit scheme. It rolls out from July next year. Other states are under pressure to follow suit.
NSW consumers will be slugged extra for plastic drink and other containers and a portion of the impost will be refunded to whomever returns them — either to a reverse vending machine or a retailer.

The anti-plastic crusade is part of a global trend. New York City council recently approved a bill to require many retailers to charge US5c for each plastic or paper bag taken by consumers at check-out counters. US cities with similar laws include Cambridge, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Reports in the US say the addition of New York, the country’s most populous city with 8 million residents, could add momentum to the push to get shoppers to go green.

The arguments are both environmental and economic. Forces are marshalling to remake the plastics economy through greater reuse and recycling.

Earlier this year, a World Economic Forum report set out the road map for change. Use of plastics increased twentyfold in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years. While it delivers many benefits, the plastics economy has ­obvious drawbacks.

After a short first-use cycle, 95 per cent of plastic packaging material value, or $US80 billion ($109bn) to $US120bn annually, is lost to the economy. “A staggering 32 per cent of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure,” the WEF report says.

“The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $US40bn annually — exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.’’

The US, Europe and Asia jointly account for 85 per cent of plastics production. The Australian plastics industry, which employs 85,000 people, produces more than 1.2 million tonnes a year and accounts for about 10 per cent of our manufacturing ­activity.

In the 2012-13 financial year, Australia consumed 1.5 million tonnes of plastic — about 65kg of plastic for every man, woman and child. And about 37 per cent of this plastic was single-use disposable packaging. Only about 20 per cent was recycled.

A global war against plastic is being waged and container deposit schemes are playing their part. Plastic waste in the ocean is a high-profile issue particularly after graphic images of sea birds starving to death after ingesting plastic. A senate inquiry heard that Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service reports that more than 70 per cent of loggerhead turtles found dead in Queensland ­waters had ingested plastic. In addition, almost a third of sea turtle deaths in Moreton Bay are attributed to ingestion of plastic.

Despite this, evidence was that the ability to assign actual cause of death to plastic ingestion is “exceptionally small”. But CSIRO is trying to estimate how much plastic will kill a turtle or a seabird.

What is known is that once plastic is ingested, animals have difficulty in ridding themselves of the debris. Many turtles have downward facing spines in their throats which prevent regurgitation.

The plastic remains in the stomach, where it blocks digestion. In addition, plastic products often decompose within the turtle, producing gas which remains trapped inside the animal. These gases cause the turtle to float on the surface, which can lead to starvation and leaves the animals prone to predation.

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The senate inquiry said it was concerned that hundreds of species of fauna including birds, turtles, cetaceans and seals were harmed by ingestion and entanglement. It recommended the introduction of container deposit schemes in all jurisdictions.

A national deposit scheme could remove an additional 35,000 tonnes from the waste stream, says Ian Kelman, executive officer of the Association of Container Deposit Scheme Operators.

Globally, deposit schemes achieve recycling capture rates of between 80 and 96 per cent of beverage containers, compared with Australia’s overall recycling rate of 42 per cent.
The benefit of introducing a deposit scheme is seen in the differences in recycling rates between South Australia and NSW: 85 per cent and 35 per cent respectively.

The deposit scheme in South Australia is a “cultural phenomenon” says Kelman, where “individuals … perhaps pensioners or homeless people in those areas, have an area of the state which is their turf, as they describe it”.

“It might be a couple of beaches or a few parks. That individual generally goes through the area and collects whatever empty containers they can. They obviously make some additional income for themselves.”

It has certainly turned the state into Australia’s recycling capital, and provided pocket money for generations of children since it was established in 1977.

Not everyone is happy. The beverage industry says the experience in the Northern Territory is that strangers rummaged through household rubbish bins in search of containers to redeem. It lobbies heavily against the introduction of a container deposit scheme.

The senate committee recognised the implementation of container deposit schemes is a polarising issue as the beverage industry is concerned about possible associated costs. But the committee was “somewhat sceptical of many of the 152 arguments put forward by industry”. And it did not accept the view that a container deposit scheme and kerbside recycling could not coexist.

The NSW decision to introduce a deposit scheme next year is a long time coming for Boomerang Alliance campaigner Jeff Angel. After “years of new studies, deferrals and endless procrastination” he says the NSW ­decision “opened the way to a massive and ongoing clean-up of the environment, creation of hundreds of jobs, much more recycling and tens of millions of dollars for charities’’.

With the right design features, Angel says a container deposit scheme could provide a $150 million boost to the recycling sector, attracting more than $160m in private sector investment to build 600 recycling collection points across the state.

The senate report called for all states and territories to adopt container deposit systems by 2020. ­Already, Queensland says it intends to follow the NSW lead.

There are three approaches to tackling plastics pollution, Angel says. First, ban single-use plastic bags, because collecting them for recycling doesn’t create a market big enough to cover the cost.

Second, create a business model for collection of material such as a container deposit scheme. Third, minimise packaging and increase compostable materials. Angel says such products are superior to biodegradable plastics, which break down into ever smaller pieces but are not absorbed back into the environment.

With momentum on a container deposit scheme, Queensland, NSW and Victoria are discussing a joint approach to single-use plastic bags. And the commonwealth and states are discussing micro beads, tiny grains of plastic found in cosmetics that wash down the plughole and never degrade. Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt says if an industry program to phase out micro beads is inadequate he will legislate next year.

The plastics industry senses that consumer sentiment is changing. The WEF report says society’s perception of plastics is deteriorating, and perhaps eventually will threaten the plastics industry’s ­licence to operate.

Industry organisation Plastics Europe warns, “There is an increasingly negative perception of plastics in relation to health, environment and other issues”.

The plastics industry could face a campaign from conservation groups similar to the one raging against the fossil fuels industry.

The vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather, they re-enter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients.

The World Economic Forum report says many innovations show potential, but to date these are too fragmented and uncoordinated to have impact at scale.

But the consumer and political tide is shifting globally against plastics and the industry is under pressure to speed its transition into the new plastics economy.

The task is enormous. The Total Environment Centre says we use more than 5 billion plastic bags each year and the amount of bags entering the litter stream each year is likely to be at least 100 million bags.

Manish Paul

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Biogone products at Moses and Co, Market Wholefoods

15th June 2017

Great to see BioGone products on display at Moses and Co. Market Wholefoods in South Melbourne market. responsible products of landfill-biodegradable kitchen waste bags and dog waste bags.

Contact Details:

322 Coventry St, Shop26, South Melbourne Market

SOUTH MELBOURNE, VICTORIA 3205.

Tel :03 96906093

Bernard Wong

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