Written by - Surika van Schalkwyk
In what seems to be an environmental breakthrough, Tiger Brands’s biggest user of packaging, Albany Bakeries, launched biodegradable plastic bread bags for its entire range three months ago, involving 3 000 tonnes of plastic in annual production.
But the Plastics Federation of South Africa (PFSA) fears that replacing the 500-million plastic bags that Albany produces a year with biodegradable bags can have a crippling effect on the R3-billion plastics recycling industry.
Biodegradable plastic is designed to break down and decompose. But critics say there is no such thing, and that at best it can be expected to decompose partly.
The plastic industry does not dispute the proposed environmental benefits of biodegradable bags, but says that biodegradable plastic could destroy a valuable resource used by 160 companies employing thousands of people. The industry says it recycles about 175 000 tonnes of plastic each year.
According to Albany’s senior brand manager, Khanyi Dhlamini, 10,5-million South African households consume Albany bread each week.
“We manufacture a lot of plastic for packaging each year. Our main reason for the initiative is to do something good for the environment and to eliminate our carbon footprint. We want to ensure that wherever this plastic lands it will not pollute the environment.”
Dhlamini said that the plastic fully decays within a year to 18 months.
Albany did not want to comment on the possible effect of these biodegradable bags on the recycling industry. “We are in contact with many stakeholders in the plastics industry and we are solving the problem internally,” it said.
David Hughes, executive director of the Plastic Federation of South Africa, said it is a scientific fact that oxo-biodegradable products contaminate the country’s coal- and petroleum-based plastic polymers in the recycle stream because normal plastics cannot be mixed with other plastics. He said this is particularly the case where there are post-consumer waste collection schemes, which rely on the consumer separating out recyclables.
“Oxo-biodegradable additive is essentially being sold on environmental reasons incorporating two major components: that any such plastic product left lying around as litter will then degrade and cease to be a nuisance.
“This is particularly applicable in countries that have no recycling industry. Second, that such plastic will degrade in the landfill and reduce the volume in the landfill.”
Hughes said the plastics federation disputed this because once buried, the plastic product becomes mummified and stops degrading.
He said that in any event the percentage of plastic in landfill is small, “dwarfed by other discarded materials”.
“There is no such thing as biodegradable plastic,” said Mabule Mokhine, Johannesburg branch coordinator of the environmental lobby group Earthlife Africa.
Mokhine said that one cannot change the chemical composition of the substance with an additive. “The best you can do is to enhance the plastic to break up into smaller pieces. But it will still be plastic and it will still harm the environment.”
Hughes argued that there are a variety of products made to oxo-biodegrade, such as medical products, garbage bags and medical sutures. “Our argument has little to do with disputing environmental aspects. The primary focus of global environmental efforts is the reuse and recycling of plastics, so it makes no sense to deliberately destroy a valuable resource.”
Ulrich Martin, chairperson of the South African Plastic Recycling Organisation (Sapro), said the true effect that biodegradable bread bags will have on the industry will be seen only two years from now.
“When lower-quality recycled products such as underground pipes and damp-proof wall coverings enter the markets in future, recyclers will struggle to sell their product. The impact can be devastating,” he said.
One major recycler used to process more than 40 tonnes a month prior to Albany launching its new product, but now refuses to take this material for fear that it will “contaminate” its other waste inputs and will result in its recycled polymer failing in subsequent applications after re-conversion.
“If the informal and formal plastic waste collectors come to know that certain plastics—like the oxo-biodegradable packaging—will not be purchased by the recyclers, then such material will have no value and will be discarded and that’s environmentally unacceptable. Job creation may well be affected negatively as well,” said Hughes.
Martin said that Albany made the decision on using biodegradable bread bags based on the assumption that South Africa does not recycle bread bags. “South Africa is a world leader in the recycling of plastic. We recycle 28% of the 900 000 tonnes of plastic manufactured in the country per year.”
According to him, Sapro worked for years to build confidence in the technical integrity of recycled material and to demonstrate its ability to perform as a viable alternative to virgin plastics. “This product can place our integrity under threat.”
A request by Sapro made to Albany to withdraw the product from the market temporarily until scientific trials could prove the risks for the recycling industry was denied.
George Fee, South African representative of the British additive manufacturer Symphony Plastics, the suppliers of biodegradable bread bags to Albany Bakeries, said that PFSA and Sapro have no evidence to say that the quality of recycled products will be compromised.
“Our products are used in 52 countries. We supply oxo-biodegradable products to companies such as Wall-Mart and the Tesco chain stores in Europe,” he said, adding that the quality of recycled products is not compromised if biodegradable additives enter the recycling stream.
“Stabiliser is added before new products are produced from recycled plastic. The militant structure of any recycled plastic is destroyed anyway. Companies in the South African recycling industry are basing their assumptions on incorrect information.”
But according to Hughes, the process is not that simple: “The percentage of oxo-biodegradable plastic in a bale mix of all polymers is significant from the point of view of having to add process stabilisers. If the mix is not known—which will usually be the case—then problems may arise further on in the re-converter product.”
He said the recycling companies have been given information about what to do, what stabilisers to add and how the additive passivation process works, but some of it is confusing and unreliable: “The industry now needs an instruction booklet on precisely what to do and it is not available.”
Various stakeholders in the plastics industry have formed a corporation called the Biodegradable Action Group, which will investigate the effect of Albany’s biodegradable bread bags on the plastic industry.
Tiger Brands/Albany and the Plastics Federation, with Sapro and the Plastics Converters’ Association, are planning to do combined scientific trials to prove one way or the other what risks are involved and whether it is safe to continue to have oxo-biodegradable polymers in the recycle stream.
“Albany is obviously entitled to take a different view and be a leader,” said Teigue Payne, publisher of Food & Beverage Reporter. But, according to Payne, Albany is not welcoming a public debate on the matter.
“What is needed is an open, public debate before anyone else opts for this technology,” he said.