By George Kurzom
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons:
Try to imagine our lives free from plastic, almost all products we use contain some plastic components: automotive, furniture, packaging, household appliances, toys, kitchenware, and others.
The sole source for the manufacture of plastic is petroleum by products. Globally, the production of plastic is 300 million tons of components per year.
The durability of plastic makes serious environmental problems, because this it is non-biodegradable, the remnants are not properly buried in landfills and produce pollution that affect the food chain.
In fact, since the first part of the last century, another possibility was discovered of producing plastic from other sources such as bacteria and plants. Biological polymers can decompose completely
Some commercial companies have been quick to market bags and other plastic products under the name "biodegradable products." But, in order to understand whether those materials actually solve the problem, we must look closely at the issue from another angle.The picture is more complicated if the plastic material is biodegradable under limited circumstances only.
During the plastic production process, organic molecules undergo a chemical process called polymerization. It changes the components to long chains of molecules making it harder to break down. Minerals and other materials could be added to the plastic to give it the necessary qualities needed for production. After using the product it is disposed in the garbage, and here the problems begin.
Biologically, the big problem is that there is almost no possibility that these chains be degraded. There are no enzymes that can break down synthetic polymers made from petroleum. There has been a discovery of bacteria able to decompose some of the plastics and to extract energy of it. However, most of these bacteria work very slowly and require special conditions. In response to this problem, plastic manufacturers added catalysts to decompose the plastic physically, mainly by ultraviolet radiation.
After exposure to the sun the plastic products disintegrate to invisible particles; however, these particles do not fully decompose, they remain stable and disperses in the environment; and these particles cause severe damage, particularly to marine ecosystems because they accumulate and don't deteriorate
There are other ways to get rid of plastic by burning, but this method is only effective at a very high temperature. This will cause the dispersal of toxic substances into the environment.
Plastic recycling, which is seen as beneficial to the environment, causes damage because it requires an enormous amount of energy, as well as the use of hazardous substances. In addition, the quality of the recycled plastic is low compared to the original raw material.
The possibility of producing plastic products made from biological materials such as bacteria and plants is considered an attractive idea.Research in this area has been under way for a few decades. The idea is to create the same polymerization process with the molecules produced by living organisms to produce plastic. The advantage of this material is that it can be decomposed completely by microorganisms; and eventually carbon dioxide and water molecules are emitted to the air.
(PLA) , is a plastic polymer that is produced from lactic acid, the same acid that gives yogurt its distinctive taste. The most common lactic acid is in cornstarch; it needs 2.5 kg of corn to produce one kilogram of PLA. Another alternative popular plastic is the "poly-hydroxy Olknuat" (PHA) which is a completely natural polymer produced by bacteria with 80% mass of dry bacteria. These bacteria breed synthetically to produce plastic molecules
These two methods are used on a relatively large scale in a variety of products. Compared with petroleum-based plastics, their decomposition is fully biological. If we put plastic products from the PLA or PHA into controlled compost pile, within a few months the material will be decomposed into carbon dioxide and water. However, because of the relatively high cost, these products are not common; however, the price is declining and is expected, within a few years, to be the same price of ordinary plastic.
The main drawback in the use of biodegradable plastic products is to control the process of decomposition. If this plastic reaches regular waste landfill and is buried under piles of garbage and its environment is anaerobic the organic material will decompose by bacteria and will emit as result, methane gas which is a toxic greenhouse gas; its greenhouse effect is much more than carbon dioxide. Since common used plastic does not decompose at all, some might say that it is less harmful to the environment than biodegradable plastic.
The only way to take advantage of the benefits of biodegradable plastic lies in separating it from non-organic waste and deal with it in a controlled compost facility. This condition restricts seriously the use of this type of plastic, because such facilities are not available now for all
There is an organizational problem in the Palestinian level. There is no specifications for manufacturers of biodegradable plastic. So, even if the plastic is called "biodegradable" it is impossible to ensure that the product is actually "biodegradable" without contaminated waste.
In summary, the biodegradable plastic products can contribute to solving the problems arising from the use of petroleum based plastic. However, to take advantage of the benefits of these products, an infrastructure for the disposal of biodegradable waste must be established.
Translated by: Kefah Abukhdeir