BEIRUT: Marketed as the eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastic, biodegradable bags are billed as naturally degrading within several years or less. But experts say that the overall impact of these “greener” alternatives could be more harmful than plastic bags with a lifespan of hundreds of years.
Sanita, a leading brand in household products in Lebanon, offers “biodegradable” bags with a lifespan of three years.
Najah Daccache, the executive director of INDEVCO Flexible Packaging – an international manufacturing group producing for Sanita – told The Daily Star that its biodegradable products are coated with an additive called D2W.
“This has become a popular additive in Lebanon. For many biodegradable bags, you’ll find that it may be branded as using D2W,” Daccache said.
The Sanita bag’s materials are not listed on its packaging, but the makers say D2W is added to plastic products to catalyze a quicker breakdown when exposed to natural elements. Created by British company Symphony Environmental Ltd., the additive is advertised to not leave behind plastic fragments or toxic residues.
Mimosa, another popular local brand in sanitary products, advertises the use of “Reverte” technology on its biodegradable bags.
Also created by a British company, Reverte is another additive that triggers degradation when exposed to natural sunlight.
Just like D2W, Reverte is advertised to not create smaller pieces of plastic. According to its website, bags are broken down into a “complex mixture of carboxylic acids, ketones and alcohols.”
Mimosa could not be reached for comment before publication.
Despite the branding, Sammy Kayed, development manager at the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center, warned against such products.
“These ‘biodegradable’ bags you come across use additives that allow plastic bags to degrade quicker, but that doesn’t mean it’s always good. Actually, it can be quite harmful, because the plastic is just degrading faster into microplastics, which can be readily digested by marine and freshwater ecosystems.”
The danger of microplastics, an underresearched issue, came to light in March when an investigation by Orb Media revealed tap water and bottled water worldwide is highly contaminated with the tiny particles.
Included in the study were tap water samples from Lebanon, which ranked second-highest for microplastic contamination, behind the United States.
Little is known about the health risks associated with consuming microplastics, but the World Health Organization recently announced that a review would soon be launched to examine this issue.
“Essentially you’re just breaking [the bag] down into smaller pieces of plastic, which doesn’t really solve the pollution issue,” Kayed said. “In fact, it adds to the issue.”
Ziad Abi Chaker, prominent environmentalist and CEO of Cedar Environmental, suggested that bags that swiftly break down macroplastics into microplastics were more dangerous than those that take hundreds of years to break down.
“At least with the single-use plastic bags, I know where it is and can treat it how I wish. With these so-called biodegradable bags, we now have to worry about millions of tiny microplastics going into the earth or the water. That becomes a much larger problem to deal with,” he told The Daily Star.
In 2015, an Italian court banned D2W products from being advertised as biodegradable after biotech firm Novamont sued manufacturing company Kromabatch for false advertising and breaching European Union regulations.
When asked whether INDEVCO was aware of such criticisms against the additives, Daccache said he was and agreed it was problematic.
“We are working on new technology, but it needs special machinery. It would be a total shift in the industry, which requires more investments. Unfortunately, at the moment, we’re not able to do this,” he said.
Sylvain Seif, senior technical and R&D expert at INDEVCO, said the technology would be using a starch-based material that eliminates the use of additives altogether.
With production far away, Daccache criticized the government for not imposing regulations that incentivize businesses to transition to eco-friendly practices without high risk.
According to Kayed, the best options for consumers are bags made from plant-based materials such as cellophane, sugarcane or corn.
“What the bag is made up of is what determines if it’s truly biodegradable or not. For example, bags made purely from cellophane are actually biodegradable. You can even put them in your compost piles,” Kayed said.
The Daily Star was able to find one biodegradable bag in a major supermarket chain in Lebanon that almost fit the bill.
Alfapac, a French brand with a long history of creating eco-friendly bags, retails products made with 82 percent sugar cane. The materials making up the remaining 18 percent of the bag, however, were not printed on the packaging.
“While it’s not ideal, I would rather be using a bag that is made 50 percent of cellophane and 50 percent plastic rather than one that is completely made out of unrecyclable plastic,” Kayed said.
Abi Chaker, however, expressed caution about plant-based bags too, noting that each alternative requires testing on a case-by-case basis.
“We have tested some [commercially available ‘biodegradable’ bag] options in high-temperature composting machines and still some of these bags have not degraded.”
Fondation Diane – an organization financing eco-entrepreneurs – has invested in a team working to make a truly biodegradable bag available in Lebanon.
“We actually already have many of the bags ready and we’ve tested to see if they would degrade with industrial composting machines with the help of [Saint Joseph University]. Right now, we’re hoping to work with municipalities to make them more available,” Cyril Rollinde, an entrepreneur working on the project, told The Daily Star.
Similarly to the French brand, the majority of the bags’ makeup is derived from a plant-based material. The remaining is made from oil, which Rollinde says is nearly impossible to do without.
“So really, all bags, eco-friendly or not, should be the last option we’re using,” he said, emphasizing the benefits of a zero-waste lifestyle.
Julien Jreissati, a Greenpeace campaigner, agreed that the heart of the issue is the amount of waste produced in Lebanon and globally.
“What we really need to be doing is focusing on how to produce less waste, otherwise nothing will change,” he said.