I am sure that you have at one or more points in your life tried to do your bit for the environment by reducing your plastic consumption, and picked up a product that had a green “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable” or “compostable” stamp on it.
Don’t be fooled by the good feeling you’re getting.
The sad reality is that they are anything but that.
The bag will eventually reach large landfills (which are already filled past capacity and toppling over in our country). From there, it will either get picked up by a rag-picker (or somewhere in the process of it reaching a landfill) or it will blow away and reach rivers, streams and eventually the sea where it is likely to kill marine life (1 Million seabirds and 100,000 turtles, sea-life and fish die each year due to plastic ingestion globally).
If it gets picked up for recycling, it will truly be lucky as only 9% of total plastic in the world has been recycled.
The last option and the most probable one is it will land up in a landfill, where it will stay forever because nothing – not even a banana peel – breaks down in a landfill due to the high pressure and anaerobic conditions where there is no sunlight, air or bacteria to help break anything down. They’ll be right here though to welcome aliens after we are all dead.
Don’t Fall for That ‘Eco-Friendly’ Tag
On the other hand, let’s talk about that ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ garbage bag. This is my favourite category (yes I am being completely sarcastic!).
First things first, nothing except natural products like plants… and I repeat, nothing… can be both biodegradable and compostable. By definition, those products are compostable if they break-down in the presence of certain bacteria into organic compounds, and/or inorganic compounds and leave no “visible” residue.
Biodegradable, on the other hand, means all those products which come 100% from nature and will go back to nature under natural conditions – so you don’t need to maintain specific conditions like temperature, pressure, bacteria presence, worms etc etc to break this product down.
Coming back to that “Biodegradable and Compostable” Garbage bag. Now since the bag can’t be both, there must be something fishy. And fishy it is – these plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces (and faster than traditional plastic), till they become invisible to the human eye. These microplastics are present in our water sources and the seas and soil. They then enter our food chain and get consumed by us. So ask yourself, is making that process of becoming microplastics much faster than before the smartest solution?
Watch Out for Simple Indicators
And they are...
1. If it looks and feels like plastic, it probably is!
2. Plastic codes (the number written in an arrow triangle somewhere on the pack). If it has a code other than 7 on it, it is made out of plastic. If it has the code 7, then it is plant-based instead of being made out of crude oil (non-renewable source) like normal plastics. This does mean its better for the environment as it uses plants as a base for manufacturing instead of oil, but when it comes to breaking down, it’s just as bad as plastic! If it doesn’t have any code, it might not be the best choice to trust the product!
3. If it says “Plant Based” materials or “Bio-based” and “CPLA” on the front of the pack, these are plant based bioplastics. While they are better for the environment during manufacturing, they only break down in industrial composting facilities. India currently does not have adequate infrastructure or waste segregation to send these products to industrial composts. Moreover, since they look exactly like plastic, they are likely to be discarded with plastic instead of the wet waste and hence will reach landfills. And as said earlier, nothing breaks down in landfills.
4. Does the bag have a detailed description saying “Industrial Composts Only”? Most “Biodegradable and Compostable” labelled bags currently do not provide this description even though they fall under this category. Such bags will not break down in your home compost - they need industrial composting units to maintain the temperature, pressure and bacteria levels completely controlled for 2-3 months to ensure the bag breaks down and we currently do not have the right infrastructure to achieve this which means these bags will also reach landfills.
5. Coming to the special category of “Oxobiodegradable” Bags. These are even worse as they break down quickly into microplastics in the presence of sunlight or sea-water but will again never break in landfills and when consumed by animals (during their break-down process), they will still suffocate and choke the animal guts and probably lead to their death - same as any other plastic.
Finally, please also note that these bags all look and feel exactly like plastic and if you send them along with your plastic recycling, they will interfere with that process since they cannot be recycled with plastic.
What Can You Do Then?
The best option is to carry your own bags for groceries (cotton bags, cloth bags, jute bags – anything works). For garbage bags, the best option is to not use a bin-liner at home at all. It sounds more of a task than it is. Switch to smaller bins that can be washed daily. If you segregate your waste, use a newspaper liner for the wet waste if you must. For dry waste, you don’t need a liner anyway. If you don’t segregate, a newspaper at the bottom of the bin would do just fine. Its just a little bit of an effort to clean the dustbin with water when you empty it out! It take 30 seconds at best but is way more helpful for the environment than any “biodegradable and compostable” bag out there!
Also, before buying a product, any product, think of the “End-of-life” Scenario. Just take a few seconds to think where the product will land up once you are done with it – in the current scenario of waste segregation and management in India, the answer will come to you easily. Simply try to use a product that you can reuse for a long time before you have to even think of disposing it and eliminate plastic where possible.
So go be a green hero – just think about the End-of-Life scenario of your choice!
(Richa Malik is an environmental consultant working on plastic reduction in India. She is an MBA graduate corporate turned scuba diving instructor turned environmental entrepreneur and owns a company called The Happy Turtle which calculates plastic footprint for businesses and individuals.)