Lab tests show not all green bags self-destruct or get dissolved in soil.
The ‘green bag’ that you get at retail stores to carry your grocery may not be so ‘green’ after all. The case with other packaging, including magazine wrappers, may not be much different, even as those claim to be 100 per cent biodegradable.
Lab tests have revealed that not all green bags self-destruct and get dissolved in soil. In fact, some of these wrappers are plain plastic.
Business Standard checked with some companies that use green bags and found that many were not even aware that the bags their vendors supplied as “biodegradable” were not so.
Thomson Press, which prints India Today and other magazines, said it had recently received complaints that some of the magazine wrappers were not biodegradable, even as those were labelled ‘biodegradable’.
“We follow green regulations. The wrappers are supplied to us by outside vendors. They claim the plastic bags are green. We have received complaints that they are not biodegradable. We will check with our vendors,” a Thomson Press official said.
The pharmacy chain of Apollo Hospitals also faced a similar challenge. Until March, the company had been using plastic bags in some of its pharmacy outlets. However, the company has now switched to non-woven cotton bags. “The move was guided by our own green initiative. However, reports that plastics are not completely biodegradable also influenced our decision,” an Apollo Group representative said.
“Most local manufacturers pass on plain plastic or ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic as environment-friendly. These contain metals like cobalt, iron or manganese in small amount and degrade in the presence of oxygen and sunlight,” said Perses Billimoria of Earth Soul Ltd. Earth Soul says it manufactures certified compostable bags.
Billimoria added that these (oxo-degradable) bags do more harm nature, as these break up in tiny flakes and get mixed in soil and water. These tiny flakes don’t degrade and get into our food chain, he claims.
The retail industry, one of the major users of plastic bags, also faces the problem of counterfeits.
“There are many companies that claim to be selling biodegradable plastic. Most of this, we know for a fact, is not biodegradable,” Thomas Varghese, president (retail), Confederation of Indian Industry, said .
Varghese added “For big brands that we sell, we don’t have to worry about the packaging”. Today, most of the big brands follow green strategy in packaging material they used. When it came to in-house brands being sold at a mall, an extra amount was charged for the carry bag, he pointed out. This encourages customers to reuse their carry bags, according to Varghese.
Indian advertising watch dog Advertising Standards Council of India (Asci) said it had recently heard concerns over the issue but was yet to receive a formal complaint.
“If it is about one company employing deceptive ad campaign, we can take action against it. But here we are taking about many manufacturers. We will look into the matter once we get a formal complaint,” Asci Secretary General Alan Collaco said.
To keep the counterfeits at bay, Earth Soul, along with other certified compostable bag manufacturers, is now forming an association of compostable plastic bag makers.
The environment ministry came out with the plastic (manufacture, usage and waste management) rules in 2011. The rules define compostable as the plastic that undergoes degradation by biological process during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and does not leave visible, distinguishable or toxic residue.
For testing this plastic, the rules have prescribed the BIS benchmark. For a compostable plastic, the benchmark is IS/ISO 17088:2008.
In 2009, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) tested plastic samples claiming to be biodegradable. Four of the nine samples taken from manufacturers, restaurants and hospitals in and around Delhi passed the test.
An expert of the plastic manufacturing industry said environment-friendly bags were “not so environment-friendly at the end of the day”.
A lot depends on where the “biodegradable” plastic ends up. If it gets buried in a landfill, it probably won’t degrade at all, because there is no light or oxygen.
Biodegradable plastics are those that will decompose in natural aerobic (composting) and anaerobic (landfill) environment.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests said it was not physically possible for the ministry to monitor all the bags manufactured in the country. So, the responsibility of monitoring the plastic garbage was on local municipal corporations.
All India Plastic Manufacturers Association (Aipma) argued the whole concept of biodegradable bags was a hogwash.
“The bags don’t degrade immediately. They take 18 months to two years to degrade. Moreover, the process is dependent on atmospheric conditions. So, in those 18 months, these bags could also clog the drains and cause other problems,” Aipma Secretary General V P Bharadwaj said.
Besides, these bags were not recyclable, while normal plastic could be recycled, he added.
CPCB Chairman S P Gautam said: “The problem is not with the use of plastic. The problem is with the management of the plastic waste and collection of plastic bags. Non-degradable plastic bags can be recycled.”