Thursday, 31 January 2008

Letter: Misleading Information on Plastics and Polystyrene

My latest Letter to the Editor, which was published today:


The letter ‘Polystyrene use: tested and proven to be safe’ (NST Friday, 25.1.2008) is astounding in its attempt to misinform consumers on the safety of polystyrene products and the inferiority of biodegradable substitutes.

The author claims that the use of biodegradable packaging will have adverse impact on the environment. It should be noted that biodegradable plastics and packaging have been studied by consumer watchdog organisations and non-profit environmental groups including the US and UK Environmental Protection Agencies, and have been found to have higher environmental and safety benefits than the products they are chosen to replace. These studies have been conducted in relation to toxicology, air quality, ocean water quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

Polystyrene products today contain no chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) not due to any magnanimous initiative on the part of the plastics industry, but because of a worldwide ban on the ozone-depleting substance. However, polystyrene and plastics are still made from petroleum, a non-renewable, fast-disappearing and heavily polluting resource. Also, benzene, a material used in the production of polystyrene, is a known human carcinogen.

The author argues that biodegradable plastics made from biomass sources entail the use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, arable land and fresh water, while the process of decomposition releases methane gas, which is ‘22 times more harmful than carbon dioxide’.

The biodegradable packaging targeted by the author in his flawed argument is actually made from empty oil palm fruit bunches, which is a by-product of the oil palm industry, therefore there will be no increase in the volume of land cleared for the cultivation of oil palm for the specific purpose of producing biodegradable food packaging.

In addition, the increased cost of biodegradable packaging would mean that consumers would be discouraged from requesting unnecessary and excessive packaging material as they are currently doing. Institutions that have replaced plastic and polystyrene food packaging with biodegradable packaging have reported that consumers have since requested less or no packaging and this has facilitated the inculcation of mindful and environmentally responsible behaviour.

The methane gas generated by decomposing biodegradable packaging is expected to be negligible in comparison to the amount of organic waste already in our landfills, and in any case, there are solid waste management plants in Malaysia that harvest methane as a source of renewable energy. This demand for methane is expected to rise as more energy suppliers around the world are looking for alternatives to coal-fired power plants. This is to be contrasted with polystyrene and plastics, which release noxious gases such as styrene, xylene and hydrogen bromide when broken down or incinerated, and has no energy potential.

In response to the argument that poor attitude and not polystyrene is to be blamed for the problem of litter, I must point out that the problem of littering and will be greatly reduced when consumers make the choice of not accepting plastic or polystyrene products, most of which, whether improperly disposed of or fastidiously rinsed and deposited into recycling bins, will eventually be landfilled.

Polystyrene, due to its brittle nature and lightness, is easily carried by wind and water to rivers and seas, whereas biodegradable packaging, due to its weight and its ability to absorb moisture and decompose, is far less likely to end up as an environmental pollutant or in the food chain of marine animals and wildlife.

Although the author lobbies for better recycling facilities for plastics and polystyrene, surely he must be aware that most plastics and polystyrene cannot be recycled. Simply embossing a mobius loop on a carton does not make it recyclable. Only plastics categorised under codes 1 and 2 are actually separated and collected for recycling. Polystyrene is hardly ever recovered for recycling due to its light weight, low scrap value, prohibitive cleaning and transportation costs and the fact that it is almost always contaminated by food and other matter.

It is for good reason that institutions, cities and countries around the world have banned polystyrene. Please do not underestimate consumers and readers, who are not easily swayed by the public relations stunts of manufacturers, but are able to understand the vested interests of those in the industry.

Wong Ee Lynn,
Petaling Jaya

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