Going Green: The dark side of biodegradable packaging
Efforts to cut down on items which contribute to pollution have been at the forefront of many government agendas worldwide.
In Trinidad and Tobago, government recently announced a ban on Styrofoam products from January 2019, and many have called for a ban on single-use plastic bags and straws.
However, Barry Fakoory, Sales Manager at VF Packaging, a local company which produces plastic containers, says there are other factors involved in the move from disposable plastic to compostable packaging.
Fakoory says in fact that studies have shown that unless people are taught to reduce their usage of disposable materials, switching over to biodegradable and compostable packaging will not have the desired effect.
“There is no such thing as environmentally friendly (disposable) packaging, customers and suppliers need to stop fooling themselves,” he said.
(Photo: Biodegradable plastics break down but may not decompose, instead, breaking up into microplastics, which can find their way into the food we eat and water we drink.)
Fakoory said compostable packaging (packaging made from plant materials) still requires treatment at an industrial composting facility before it can be broken down – a facility that Trinidad and Tobago does not yet have.
He added that packaging made of compostable materials such as bagasse, a by-product of sugar cane factories, can also have a detrimental environmental impact.
“Sugarcane is a very destructive plant, it has been noted that it causes severe damage to eco-diversity in places where it’s cultivated.”
Fakoory added that in the last 10 years sugar cane production has increased by 25 percent, which he believes may be the result of an increased demand for alternative materials such as bagasse.
"Another important factor to focus on is food cost as land is now being used to produce packaging instead of food," he said, adding that chemical runoff from agricultural farms also produces significant damage to marine ecosystems.
According to a Guardian report, some view bioplastics as a “negative step” as the products waste resources such as land and energy in order to create a product designed for single use.
Fakoory, whose company is planning to introduce reusable containers, said the change must occur within consumers’ behaviour.
Fakoory said at present in Trinidad and Tobago, compostable packaging is being touted as an option to simply replace plastic single-use packaging, but requires more resources to be made and is disposed of after one use. Because there are no industrial composting facilities in Trinidad and Tobago, the items are sent to landfills.
“People think ‘I can now use these (compostable) products instead and nothing bad will happen’. These products are being touted as a ‘one size fits all’ solution, yet these items are all ending up in the same place, in the dump,” he said.
He added that these items would also cost business owners much more, driving up the cost both to the business and its consumers.
“You’re looking at a small businessperson who spends an average of $300 a day on packaging, and that cost would now be tripled. I find it so unbelievable that there are certain entities who are trying to shut down the manufacturing industry for themselves to take over the industry, to make money, and they have the audacity to call manufacturers greedy.”
“We (VF Packaging) are looking at reusable plastics and recycling of plastics here, but some just want people to use (compostable) products without looking at whether they are actually helping the environment,” he said.
His company currently produces PET containers which are recyclable and manufactures PET containers made from recycled material.
Fakoory said in order to truly tackle the waste issue, a proper waste collection and recycling system must be established.
He also acknowledged the work being done by government to initiate a curbside collection programme but said in order for the system to work, the plastics should be recycled locally instead of being shipped away.
“There are a range of reusable plastic options that are BPA-free and I think this is the direction to go, but we need to encourage it. Businesses should encourage the use of reusable packaging, and there should also be incentives (for customers and businesses) to facilitate this.”
“I’m a manufacturer and I have no issue with that. There are always avenues for sustainable business and you need to be concerned with the environmental impact you have, but a lot of people are just concerned with making money.”
“Say you have a choice between a plastic fork and a bamboo fork. A bamboo fork would break down faster, but say you recycle that plastic fork, it can be remade into a football shirt or a plate, plus it consumes less energy to produce than a bamboo fork. What would now be considered better?”
Fakoory said the issue shouldn’t be switching out one disposable item for another but should incorporate a system of reduction, recycling and reuse.
“This is about what is going on within the industry. What has been going on has nothing to do with reusing and recycling, it has to do with consumption. There are no ethical practices,” he said.
“Right now it’s not about reusability, it’s just substitution. It has nothing to do with proper environmental practices. They will just keep destroying forests and other environmental ecosystems to make these compostable products. We need to reduce, reuse and recycle, otherwise it won’t work,” he said.
Biodegradable vs compostable, what's the difference?
Many people confuse "biodegradable" with "compostable". "Biodegradable" broadly means that an object can be biologically broken down, while "compostable" typically specifies that such a process will result in compost or humus.
Biodegradable plastics can be partially broken down but this can take many years, whereas compostable items, once treated, can break down within a year.
However, just because an item is biodegradable, does not necessarily mean it is compostable.
Biodegradable plastics can become more harmful by breaking down into tinier pieces of plastic, known as microplastics, which damage marine life and can harm humans who consume them.
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