Dr S Radhakrishnan, Vice President of Indian Plastic Institute (IPI), tells Neha Basudkar that plastic causes irreparable damage to the environment and thus needs to be banned. However, at the same time, he said that bags that are provided in the market by companies claiming to made up of cornstarch as an alternative to plastic, are not the answer.
Interview of the week
What do you mean by oxo-degradable?
The additive, which is used in oxo degradation, degrades the plastic through the process of photocatalytic oxidation reaction that takes place in presence of sunlight and oxygen. Now it gets converted into smaller molecules, which are more harmful than macro plastic. If the microplastic is eaten by an animal, it will be harmful whereas macro plastic cannot be eaten easily. Oxo-degradable plastic packaging, including carrier bags, is often marketed as a solution to plastic pollution, with claims that such plastics degrade into harmless residues within a period ranging from a few months to several years. Significant evidence indicates that oxo-degradable plastics do not degrade into harmless residues, but instead fragment into tiny pieces of plastic and contribute to microplastic pollution, posing a risk to the ocean and other ecosystems, potentially for decades to come.
How did you come to know that these compostable bags are not actually compostable?
If these bags are exposed to sun and oxygen, it itself explains its bio-compostable. These films, which are now claimed to be made out of cornstarch, does not really contain starch and thus their claim of bio-compostable. While doing a research on it, I could not find any starch in it, modified or otherwise. As it has to be modified and blended along with other chemicals to make it a compostable bag.
If these bags are not compostable, then why the concerned authorities are not raising a concern on it?
There are two things that can happen there, one is that the authorities are unaware of the fact of oxo degradation as it is not very well understood by people. There is a certain criterion by which you can say that these are degradable or non-biodegradable. Now the criterion, which is set for giving the license to manufacturers is that it is oxo-degradable. When they put it into soil and it breaks down into pieces, they say it is degradable or compostable. But it fails scientific tests such as whether sunshine is needed or not, etc.
If these so-called ‘compostable bags’ are dumped in the soil, what harm could it cause?
In the ecological system, during the autumn season, when the leaves fall off the trees, they get soaked into the soil. Then it takes one or two months to become compost. Once it becomes compost, next cycle starts after six months. And if these bags are said to be bio-compostable, then they are supposed to become a compost in two months and if they go on accumulating into the environment for months together, the ecological process is disturbed and the natural cycle can change. So it is not a true solution for short-term business and recycling is the solution for it.
What effects will it make if this oxo degradable material gets into the human body?
Oxo degradable just vanishes. If it is a high-density polythene, it is an inert quality, which can damage, as it stays there for infinite years. But if it is not causing any damage to your body and your system, then it is not a pollutant. Also, no one has ever tested, which plastic can harm the human body and at what level. Throwing it into the garbage and not reusing it causes problem.
What is the solution?
Definitely paper bags is not the solution. Because once people start using paper, it could lead to chopping of trees and green cover will be lost. Hence, to solve the plastic problem, it should be reused and recycled several times and finally, it should be used for the construction of the road. Even paper does not degrade in absence of water. And paper cannot be reused for multiple purposes while plastic can be reused for infinite purpose.
How are you working on making bags, which are an alternative to plastic?
I am struggling to make a compostable bag, which can be in food contact and can degrade along with the garbage. I am working on modified casava starch. I am taking it because it is not an edible starch, it is not a food product, it is the extract of a vegetable. Now, cornstarch is edible and if that is converted into bags, it will affect the food chain. My contention is that the food chain should not be disturbed and we must use those natural products, which are not edible like waste starch out of vegetables, cashew nut shell liquid oil, soya extract, which does not affect the mainstream food chain.