South Africans buying products with "biodegradable" plastic packaging are often duped by companies eager to profit from the current trend towards environmentally-conscious consumerism. While the plastics do break up into small pieces, they remain toxic and potentially dangerous to human health.
In an attempt to reduce pollution and the amount of waste going into limited landfill space, the country has started to buy into a newly developed form of plastic that rapidly degrades, known as oxo-biodegradable plastic. However, these plastics have come under fire by environmentalists because, contrary to how they are marketed, they are not truly biodegradable.
Lack of environmental regulation means that labelling can be misleading and consumers don’t necessarily get what they are promised. South Africa does not have a certification system in place which distinguishes between degradable and biodegradable plastics.
Oxo-biodegradable plastic is, like other plastics, petroleum-based, with an added chemical which breaks up the product into tiny little pieces. As a result, these plastics don't take up space in landfills but they produce toxic dust that pollutes the environment and is known to be detrimental to human health.
Last year, British manufacturer Symphony Environmental Technologies clinched a deal to supply plastic packaging to Albany Bakeries, a subsidiary of South African food giant Tiger Brands. It claims its packaging contains an added chemical compound that causes the plastic to degrade in less than six months, leaving behind no fragments or harmful residues.
However, environmental experts say this is not good enough to be rated biodegradable. "To be beneficial to the environment, a polymer [plastic] should disappear completely. In biodegradation this means a natural conversion to CO2 and water," explained Bruno de Wilde, lab manager at Organic Waste Systems (OWS), a Belgium consulting company that tests and certifies the biodegradability of consumer products and packaging.
Another problem with oxo-biodegradable plastics is that they can only be safely and successfully recycled if they are captured into the recycling stream within a few days of use.
"In waste collection you don’t know how old plastics are, so it is likely that in the mechanical sorting process, oxo-biodegradable plastics could end up in the manufacture of other products and continue to degrade," said David Hughes, executive director of the Plastics Federation of South Africa who has convinced industry heavyweights like Coca-Cola and Woolworths to steer clear of oxo-biodegradable plastic.
"Recycling companies won’t want to take products made from oxo-biodegradable plastics. This will disrupt the recycling industry which is creating jobs in South Africa," he added.
Albany Bakeries is not the only company in South Africa trying to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers by marketing its packaging as biodegradable.
Astrapak, one of the biggest producers of plastic packaging in the country, manufactures a plastic degradable garbage bag made from petroleum-based granules into which it will degrade after usage.
But environmental experts like de Wilde, warn that the minuscule plastic fragments the bag degrades into may enter the food chain and pose health risks. Most plastics contain harmful chemicals, such as sulphur and ethylene oxides, which can cause respiratory and reproductive problems.
To date, oxo-biodegradable plastics have not met the internationally-accepted standards for compostable and biodegradable packaging which ensures that a product breaks down completely in a landfill or an industrial compost heap. To be certified as biodegradable, a product must be fully tested and approved by internationally-recognised bodies, such as the Institute for Standards Research (ISR) and the International Standards Organisation (ISO).
As there is no certification system in place which distinguishes between the terms ‘degradable’ and ‘biodegradable’ in South Africa, it has meant that companies are able to punt their packaging as being biodegradable and therefore environmentally-friendly.