Technological watch

Fake biodegradable products flood market after India bans single-use plastics

It was bound to happen, right? A ban is mandated on various plastic items such as retail T-shirt bags, eating utensils, straws, cups, plates, and carry-out containers. But what if millions of retail bags, utensils, straws, cups, plates and carry-out containers are not available to meet consumer demand, especially in places like China and India? The answer is simple: Sell “fake” biodegradable retail bags, eating utensils, straws, cups, plates and carryout containers. An article in the New Indian Express by Shalnu Mohan, “Fake Biodegradable Carry Bags Flood Markets,” reports that counterfeit biodegradable bags are “flooding the market” in Thiruvananthapuram, India, “following the ban imposed by the state government on single-use plastic.”

The ban, which took effect in the state of Kerala on Jan. 1, 2020, also stipulated a fine of Rs 50,000 ($700) for violating the ban. Gee, what’s a store owner to do? Use fake biodegradable bags! So, on Jan. 27, “the state government issued yet another order clarifying [that] the products banned include branded and non-branded biodegradable carry bags,” said the article.

Obviously, the big problem is that “fake” biodegradable bags cannot be distinguished from the real thing. The state of Kerala’s ban is quite extensive, as listed in the article: Plastic carry bags of any thickness; plastic sheets that act as tablecloths; plates, cups and decorative materials made of Styrofoam or Thermocol; single-use utensils of all types, including cups, plates, spoons, forks, straws and stirrers; non-woven bags; plastic flags; plastic bunting; plastic packets for packing fruits and vegetables; plastic drinking water pouches; plastic water bottles smaller than 500 ml; plastic-coated paper cups, plates, bowls and bags; plastic garbage bags including for hospital use and, yes, there’s more.

Since it’s really tough to tell biodegradable bags from conventional plastic bags, government guidelines require that all biodegradable plastic products should have approval from the Central Pollution Control Board and carry the proper certification. The biodegradable materials “shall bear the details of the company manufacturing the products and a QR code” and “must display in writing ‘this is a purely biodegradable plastic product,’ and should dissolve in methylene dichloride, [which] must be mentioned on the packaging bag, cover or sheet material,” explained the article. 

I could not find any information specific to methylene dichloride but did find dichloromethane, which is an organic compound widely used as a solvent in paint strippers and paint thinners. It has some health risks as, according to one website, its high volatility makes it an acute inhalation hazard. I’m not sure why bioplastics used in the state of Kerala need to be dissolvable in this compound.

None of this should surprise anyone. Promoting biodegradable products as eco-friendly, when they aren’t really any better than conventional plastics that can be recycled, is just more “greenwashing.” Biodegradability, after all, only happens when these products are left in the open environment, which isn’t the best idea even if it only takes a year or so to fragment as opposed to hundreds of years for conventional polymers.

A plastic product labeled “compostable” may be compostable . . . if consumers can find a composting facility that will take the product. However, given there is generally no separate curbside collection for compostable products—paper or plastic—it’s difficult to justify the production of anything claiming to be compostable. So, would you say that printing “compostable” on a bag is “fake” or just misleading, given that you might not be able to find a composting facility willing to take the bags?

Most solutions tend to cause more problems, as in the case of biodegradability. The makers of these bags—and the companies that use them—obviously believe they are promoting their “green” identity, when in reality there’s not a whole lot of value in biodegradability given that the item must be left in the open environment in order for it to degrade over a period of several years.

The problem with fake biodegradable bags is that if they happen to be real LDPE or LLDPE bags, they can be recycled. Printing “biodegradable” on a plastic bag just to appear green is “greenwashing.” And that does everyone—including the plastics industry—a disservice.

Image: Alswart/Adobe Stock

Publication date: 07/02/2020

Plastics Today


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.