Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Plastic materials have become so omnipotent that every aspect of human life is touched by this man created contraption and there does not appear to be any escape from them without causing major disruptions in the day to day activities of the society as a whole. In terms of convenience and versatility plastics are irreplaceable just like the fossil fuels on which man depends so heavily as the driving engine for growth and development. As most of the plastics are derived from exhaustible fossil sources and since they are practically indestructible, quest for alternatives to plastics has been going on for the last 3 decades. The pollution potential of plastics is so high, their indiscriminate disposal is known to cause pollution, flooding of urban drainage, damage to lives of animals and generate toxins on burning without control. Though they can be recycled, hardly 2% of the entire production goes through recycling route. Since production of plastics is an energy intensive process, recycling can be expected to save considerable energy in the long run on a global level. Though materials like Cellophane, known and used since long, are degradable, their universal use has practical limitations in terms of functionality. After years of research and development, food industry was able to come up with a functionally satisfactory packing material using the commonly available lactic acid which has recently made its debut with the industry. What about the consumer response to this ground-breaking development? The old saying that "Man Supposes, God Disposes" is becoming a reality, the only difference here being "industry proposes, consumer disposes".

"The world's first 100 percent biodegradable chip packet attracted a lot of noise last week, but not the buzz that SunChips' maker FritoLay had been hoping for.

40,000 people have signed up to a Facebookgroup criticizing the packaging material, plant-based polylactic acid (PLA), for being too loud. It is said to biodegrade in as little as 14 weeks, while conventional chip packets typically take over 100 years.

Can there really be 40,000 people who would prefer to add to our ever-growing mountain of waste than buy an extra-crispy chip packet? Are we really that shallow?

Sadly, it seems so.

"The loudest, most annoying bag on the planet." That's how one Facebook user describes the new compostable SunChips bag – and she's not alone. But its makers are doing a great job of rejecting the ruckus.

Backed into a corner, the company has incorporated the reaction into its marketing strategy, attaching signs to store shelves that read: "Yes, the bag is loud. That's what change sounds like".

The eternal debate regarding biodegradability of conventional plastics is unlikely to die soon because arguments on both sides have their own merits. Many wonder why plastics should be biodegradable when there are many other materials in every day use which are not easily destructible while the high decibel campaign against plastics cites its uncontrolled littering as cause for many woes confronting the world. If used plastics are to be used as a land refill, is it not better if it is not degradable? Even if biodegradability is required, plastics can be modified during its manufacture to include microbes attracting additives that will ensure their destruction 100 times faster than conventional ones. A plastic material like Nylon has been made biodegradable because of microorganisms like Flavobacteria and Pseudomonas. Dependence on fossil fuel for making plastics is another reason for its shunning as the source materials are likely to be exhausted soon. But plastics like poly ethylene can be made from plant derived raw materials without using fossil fuels as feed stock. Probably a balance has to be struck between normal plastics and biodegradable plastics and both options must be on the table for future policy decisions as and when supply position is affected.


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