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Why the Middle East's use of oxo-biodegradable plastics is toxic for the environment Open in fullscreen

Nadine Sayegh

Why the Middle East's use of oxo-biodegradable plastics is toxic for the environment

Plastics and single-use plastics have been a recent hot topic in the Gulf region [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 January, 2020

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The UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are allowing the use of plastic that falls under the category of 'oxo-degradable plastic' which poses a big risk to the environment.
With wildfires raging through Australia and eating through plant and animal species, the issue of the environment returns back to the foreground.

The environment can be observed in many ways, the use of fossil fuels, the abundance (or lack there of) of nature and green spaces, to eco-friendly initiatives to waste prevention and the reduction of personal carbon footprints.

Plastics and single-use plastics have been a recent hot topic; take for example Dubai Airport's pledge to ban single use plastics in 2020.

However, there is a serious need to investigate the benefit of current policies in place. To gain a deeper insight, particularly the area of plastic in the wider Gulf region, The New Arab speaks with a COO of a leading UAE plastic manufacturer as well as Dr Akram Madanat of Karak Star for Recycling in Jordan.

There is an existing standard in place in countries such as the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, among others that solely allow the use of plastic that falls under the category of 'oxo-biodegradable plastic,' this is true for all plastic bags as well as other selected plastic items but what does this mean?  

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It refers to chemically altering the plastic to disintegrate quicker as a response to interacting with oxygen and ultimately become organic material or being decomposed by organic material. 

Proponents of this additive vouch that this way the plastic breakdown and biodegrades at a faster speed releasing no toxins in the atmosphere while doing so.

However, numerous studies that have found that the d2w additive (salts that changes the chemical make-up of the plastic) do not hold up to their claims.

In fact, one report from the EU Commission cites that oxo-biodegradable plastic is more harmful to the environment, particularly, to marine life, by creating micro-plastics. To further clarify, the EU Commission, in April 2018, banned the term biodegradability in liaison with the term OXO – as ultimately, they have found that the additive does not leads into any biodegradation. 

As such the plastic does not fully disintegrate but is reduces to sizes unseen by the naked eye and can be inhaled and ingested. It adds that ultimately all things will biodegrade within a certain time frame or so and thus to be beneficial it must fully biodegrade within a reasonable time-frame. 

Oxo-biodegradable plastic is more harmful to the environment, particularly, to marine life, by creating micro-plastics

One study found that oxo-biodegradable plastic is found to retain its total structural integrity for up to two years in the ocean. Professor Mark Miodownik, materials scientist and engineer at UCL states, "At the moment most biodegradable or compostable products end up in landfill, where they will not biodegrade, which raises the question of what the point is."

UAE-based COO Maya el-Ward explains, "This does not mean the broken down plastic flakes become one with the environment, it's just basically broken down into smaller pieces of plastic which makes it harder to collect and effectively hindering any chance of recycling the plastic."

However, both el-Ward and Madanat agree that the GCC are seeking to solve the plastic crisis and is taking the lead in advancing and updating policies.

Why then the insistence of the use of this additive in the region?

Cost and availability of materials to create truly biodegradable plastics is simply unavailable. Madanat adds, "Oxo-based additives might be a good solution to those countries who do not have or plan to use bio-degradable plastics, like in Jordan we do not have any production facilities for biodegradable plastics so the raw material would be very expensive here."

In addition, a major justification is that in hotter and more humid temperatures, the plastic oxidises at a faster rate and thus suitable for the region. But the ideal circumstance for this process is on an industrial scale at 60 degrees Celsius retaining enough humidity to encourage growth of micro-organisms. 

To highlight the regional differences on the matter, the EU last year effectively banned the use of oxo-degradable plastic.

Additionally, el-Ward tells The New Arab, "Most Western clients do not have the same regulation as many Middle Eastern countries with some of our major clients hard set against the use of oxo-biodegradable additive. Clients who are well versed in the actual definition of oxo-biodegradable plastics believe it's a terrible solution to the current plastic solution as it doesn't really resolve the problem."

It seems for the moment; the most reasonable option is to create plastics that are recyclable and for large corporations to insist on at least part of their plastic to be made of recycled materials.

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While there is interest in the region to using recycled materials in their plastics, some are worried about customer perception as recycled plastic bags tend to lose a bit of their shine as well as uneven surfaces.

"Our clients fear the consumers would not like it. This is especially true in the Middle East. We have clients in the UK and the EU who use between 50 percent or 100 percent recycled materials in their bags. It is more acceptable with consumers there," el-Ward says.

With environmental tragedies happening around the word local and global awareness must be achieved to help guide future policies using the input of local communities.

At Karak Star for Recycling innovative and localised methods are being used at a grass-roots level. "We started with paper recycling to produce paper egg trays. The second stage, which just started, is a plastic to energy recycling project we turn waste plastics to fuel (pyrolysis oil). The third one will be for recycling PET (non-biodegradable plastic) into egg trays," explains Madanat.

Degrading plastic into micro-plastic is harmful to the environment and to human beings and must be replaced with an innovation that actually works

We must be realistic in our understanding of the reduction of plastic use. This means that plastic will continue to be used in numerous industries and as such realistic solutions mush be achieved.

Degrading plastic into micro-plastic is harmful to the environment and to human beings and must be replaced with an innovation that actually works.

In sum, el-Ward explains, "Plastics in its various forms in not something that can go away immediately, they are used one way or another in every industry from aviation to medical.

"Governments can try to ban certain plastic product but that would be only a tiny fraction of what is out there which is not a long term solution. Recycle, recycle, recycle."


This article has been updated to include clarifications on 'oxo-degradable' and 'oxo-biodegradable' plastics and a correction regarding standards on these materials in the UAE and Saudi Arabia

Nadine Sayegh is a multi-disciplinary writer and researcher covering the Arab world. She is currently writing her PhD thesis on Gender in the Arab world. She has worked on subjects including countering violent extremism, Palestine-Israel, and media studies, amongst others. With 10 years of experience she has written for a number of regional and international titles.

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