Are 'biodegradable plastics' environment-friendly? Think again, warns group

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 08 2019 02:12 AM | Updated as of Oct 08 2019 06:25 AM

MANILA—From recyclable plastic to bioplastics made from plants, new packaging solutions have been promoted by companies amid a new generation of consumers concerned about sustainability.

But are bio-based, biodegradable or compostable plastic better? Not really, according to Greenpeace.

In its latest report, "Throwing Away the Future: How Companies Still Have It Wrong on Plastic Pollution 'Solutions,'" the international group tackles several ways companies have claimed to address the plastic waste problem, which includes 164 million sachets being used and thrown away daily in the Philippines.

“It’s time to declare peak plastic,” said Abigail Aguilar, Greenpeace Southeast Asia regional campaign coordinator, at a press conference in Quezon City on Monday.

Aguilar said companies were “poised to increase the production of plastic” despite its “known and potential impacts to human health at every point of its life cycle.”

The 36-page report of Greenpeace discussed different solutions put forth by fast moving consumer goods companies (FMCG) and how they were not always environment-friendly.


Among these solutions is the move towards paper packaging.

Aguilar said the preference for paper packaging would only negatively affect forests.

“It’s transferring one problem to another. Materials substitution is not a solution,” she said.

Beau Baconguis, Asia Pacific coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, said paper packaging contributes to the issue of deforestation at a time when “we really really need” to keep forests intact because of climate change.

She also said that some paper packages require plastic liners, which may cause “contamination from the chemicals that would be leeching into the food.”

In the report, Greenpeace pointed out there was a big need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere because of climate change. 

“The most effective way to do this is to restore degraded forests and to reforest large parts of those areas lost in the past," part of the report read.

It added, “Despite the fact that paper has been recycled for centuries, current paper recycling systems are failing to deliver enough quality recycled fiber in many countries, partly due to contamination in the recycling stream, leading municipalities to incinerate or landfill vast amounts of paper collected for recycling."

“Major FMCG companies that have announced shifts to paper packaging seem unaware of these limitations.”


Greenpeace also dismissed “bioplastics” or plastics made from plant materials such as corn or sugarcane as “greenwashing.”

“These terms can be confusing for customers, especially when generic ‘greenwashing’ terms such as ‘eco’, ‘bio’ or ‘green’ are used for marketing advantage,” the report said, further explaining that bioplastics do not have a standard definition and can include fossil fuel based plastic.

Only 1 percent of the world’s plastic is bio-based but most of it is “partially composed of fossil-based plastic,” Greenpeace said.

Aguilar also argued that bioplastics “don’t decompose in nature.”

“They would normally require industrial levels facilities to actually degrade into nature,” she said,

According to the report, “the heat and humidity conditions required (to decompose bioplastics) are rarely, if ever, met in the natural environment.”

“And when that biodegradable plastic does break apart, it may not fully disappear but instead fragment into smaller pieces, including microplastics, which can be ingested by animals and enter the food web,” it added.

While such plastics are made from natural ingredients, their production require chemical additives similar to conventional plastic.

It will also result in deforestation, said Baconguis.

“You will have mono-cropping, clearing of forests to have agricultural land,” she said. “Instead of growing crops for food, we grow it (to create packaging)… to throw it away.”

Greenpeace acknowledged that there were new technologies utilizing “biobased packaging made from non-agricultural crops like algae, methane or seaweed, (but) these are emerging technologies and processes and will require transparent assessments on a range of impacts.”


And as for the promise of recycling, Aguilar said they were “not sold on the recyclability narrative.”

Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of the world’s plastics remain unrecycled.

“Recyclability for us is a myth,” Aguilar said. “It’s not really substitute for overall reduction. Certainly it’s not a justification of the increase in plastic production.”

The Greenpeace report said recycling systems could not simply keep up with the waste being produced, especially since most of the recycling that happens produces plastic of lesser quality or value.

“Flexible plastic packaging such as wrappers, sachets, pouches, shrink-wrap, and savory snack bags now dominate grocery stores - the market for this grew by 19 percent just in 2017 - and this type of packaging is often made of multiple materials that make it difficult if not impossible to recycle,” the report said.

On top of that, environmental groups are wary of chemical recycling, which uses hazardous chemicals and intensive use of energy to convert plastic waste into basic building blocks that can be used to make new plastic.

“Investment in new chemical recycling infrastructure is risky in that it will ‘lock in’ demand for plastic waste in order to generate more plastic as well as non-plastic by-products,” Greenpeace said in its report. 

“One analysis estimates products produced by chemical recycling to be worth $120 billion, with the production of gas and oil from these processes projected to be 14 percent of that value.”

Jove Benosa of the EcoWaste Coalition said people should also not be encouraged by the option to turn plastic waste into eco-bricks.

“They are not meant for building structures,” he said, claiming that eco-bricks do not comply with the Building Code.

“It may look beautiful on the onset, in the long run it is still residual waste,” he said.

Benosa pointed out that what should instead be implemented is the section of Republic Act 9003 or the Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 on “non-environmentally acceptable products.”

The law requires the National Solid Waste Management Commission to prepare a list of products and packaging that should be prohibited because they are not environmentally acceptable.

“This has long been overdue,” Benosa said. “We are now almost 20 years of implementing the law but we still haven’t seen any of this from the Commission.”


So if paper, bioplastics and recycling are out, what should companies and the public consider?

“We have to look at communities practicing zero waste,” Baconguis said.

“We used to have a ‘tingi’ culture. Maybe we can bring it back,” she added, referring to how Filipinos used to bring reusable bottles to the neighborhood store to buy a bit of cooking oil and other cooking ingredients.

Greenpeace said companies should avoid the “throwaway culture” and should instead find ways to reduce packaging altogether.

Among the examples cited by the group are small zero waste cafes like Sierreza.

Its branch in Teacher’s Village in Quezon City is unassuming but throughout the afternoon, people kept coming in to buy food or dry goods.

One woman ordered a sack of rice sourced from local farmers. Another customers returned reusable containers he borrowed from the shop.

Marc Dizon, a logistics company manager, ordered a couple of his favorite dishes, which were wrapped in banana leaves instead of plastic. While his favorite dried chili peppers were placed in a small jar. He paid by gram, as with other products available at the store.

“If our forefathers can do it, why can’t we?” he said, recalling how as a child his parents did not use plastic when going to the supermarket.

Dizon, who participates in their company’s beach cleanup drives, said he had seen how the environment has been degraded.

“If this one (refilling stations) will help just a little bit, I think it’s worth the initiative,” he said.


In response to the Greenpeace report, Unilever on Monday sent details of the company’s new global pledge.

“Plastic has its place, but that place is not in the environment,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said in a statement. 

“Our starting point has to be design, reducing the amount of plastic we use, and then making sure that what we do use increasingly comes from recycled sources.”

The company pledged to reduce its use of virgin plastic by half by 2025. It also pledged to collect and process more used plastic packaging than it sells.

The company also noted that it plans to scale up its product refilling stations in malls in Metro Manila.

However, Greenpeace said they would want to see those stations in communities where it is easier for ordinary Filipinos to access.

The environmental groups said a better solution to the problem would be for the government to institute a nationwide ban on single-use packaging.

At the end of the day, Baconguis said those who will suffer from the world’s plastic problem are poor communities that become dumping grounds for single-use packaging, whether they be made from paper, plastic or bioplastic.