by Terese Anne Teoh
“CORN STARCH BIODEGRADABLE PLATE”, the plates scream, its plastic outer casing proudly swashed in hues of green. Another quote of “Save the Earth” is scribbled below, and a couple of evergreen trees burst at the side for good measure. There is not even the word ‘Disposable’ on it, even though it is – because surely such natural goodness neutralizes any environmental impact.
Beside it stands a stack of styrofoam and plastic plates that are $2 cheaper. But you’ve heard about the horrors of plastic. You’ve done your research, and you know they can release dioxins, break down into microplastics and all that, and you don’t want to be complicit in contributing to the problem.
In the end, you happily pick the corn starch ones, assuring yourself you’ve just made a quality sacrifice and completed another milestone for the environment. That’s amazing.
It’s not as simple as you think.
Use biodegradable disposables in Singapore – or perhaps in any other parts of the world – and you are not “saving the earth” at all.
Based on a life-cycle assessment study conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), biodegradable plastics can expend greater volumes of water and energy, and demand more land clearing.
And because Singapore incinerates all waste in its four waste-to-energy incineration plants, there is no hope for its degradation safely back into the soil.
The tables below, all screenshots from the life-cycle assessment study, summarizes how the various disposables compare in terms of environmental impact.
Let’s draw out the highlights.
paper bags use MORE water than plastic bags
oxo-degradable bags have metal ion additives – which is wastefully burnt away, to release toxins into the air
oxo-degradable bags will NOT degrade
oxo-degradable bags INTERFERE with the recycling process
PLA degradable and corn starch bags require CLEARING of large tracts of land and LARGE amounts of water
The corn used to make corn starch plate could have been used for FOOD instead!
corn starch plate is in fact beaten by styrofoam plate in terms of water efficiency, energy efficiency and land use change
the water costs above (see droplets) all include the washing of reusable plates over the projected five years
- This one looks tempting – with average global warming potential, water requirement, energy consumption and land use change, it looks set to be the “best disposable option”.
- Unfortunately, it’s really just another menace to the environment and to our health.
- Studies have warned that styrofoam is capable of leaching toxic carcinogens such as styrene when in contact with hot food. It’s been linked to impairment to memory and concentration, detrimental effects on our nervous system, vision and hearing loss…
- Released to nature, it causes cancer in animals as well.
- One may argue – then why hasn’t Singapore banned it? Local reports have assured that the level of toxins released is insufficient to cause deep immediate damage to the human body.
- BUT, if many scientists have discovered that styrene does get leaked out, why take chances by using a styrofoam plate ever so frequently?
In countries that deposit of their waste in landfills, there is little hope that these plastic bags will degrade either, since a specific amount of air and sunlight are needed for its degradation.
Strangely enough, studies have also shown that the bio-plastic does not degrade when in the soil or in water as well.
So if they don’t degrade, they behave just like another plastic item. You might find it at the Galapagos islands soon enough. Because they are a nasty Number Seven; completely non-recyclable; out of that circular loop.
The best option would still be to use reusables, so that as little waste can be generated as possible.
Can we progress to a nation averse to binning instantly?
Terese Teoh leads the Bounce Bags Team of Plastic-Lite Singapore.