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Biodegradable plastic may not be the answer

July 24,2019
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Some brands continue to provide plastic bags to their customers and market themselves as eco-friendly, insisting that they only use biodegradable plastic bags. [JOONGANG ILBO, SCREEN CAPTURE]
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Biodegradable plastic bags are only effective when they are buried in a landfill. However, in Korea, it is less likely that plastic bags will end up being buried. [JOONGANG ILBO]
As of April 1, big retailers have been banned from offering plastic bags to customers. However, one large fast fashion brand in Korea was recently spotted packing a customer’s items in its iconic white plastic bag and providing it for free. Upon questioning, the clerk blithely said that it’s not against the law because the plastic bag uses a “biodegradable plastic.”

Another large department store in central Seoul also informed its customers soon after the plastic bag ban that the bags they offer were acceptable as the department store uses biodegradable plastic bags instead of the traditional ones that are now illegal.

Traditional plastic is made from petroleum-based raw materials. The biodegradable plastic bags that some Korean retailers have adopted are certified by the Ministry of Environment and are labeled with an eco-mark “EL724.” This certifies that the bag is made from corn starch that can be broken down by microorganisms and be completely decomposed in 90 days if buried in soil.

Compared to traditional plastic bags, which cost 2,000 won ($1.70) per 100 pieces, biodegradable plastic bags are three to four times more expensive, with 100 pieces being priced between 7,000 won and 8,000 won. Despite the high cost, retailers scrambled to make orders for the bioplastics in order to avoid the regulation and provide convenience to their customers. The fact that bioplastics are able to decompose a lot faster than traditional plastic bags - which are said to take at least a thousand years to decompose in landfills - attracted many institutions and local governments in Korea to start developing their own bioplastics.

Propack, a company that supplies the majority of biodegradable plastic bags in Korea said that its order volume in January was 60 tons, but by May it had jumped up to 150 tons.

“These days, operating the factory 24 hours a day is not enough to meet the demands,” said an official from the company. “The orders that come in these days have to wait at least a month to receive their products.”

The biodegradable plastic bags that Propack has developed are known as PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) bags, which use corn starch as their main ingredient. Many hailed such bioplastic products, saying they may be the perfect alternative to traditional petroleum-based plastics.

However, environmental activists insist that such bioplastics are far from the answer to dealing with the country’s plastic waste problem. Although these plastic bags do biodegrade, they only do so when they are buried underground, and it is very unlikely that the plastic bags will end up in landfills. In Korea, according to the Ministry of Environment, the percentage of landfills has been steadily decreasing since 2012. Last year, among a total of 4,600 tons of plastic trash that got collected in a day, only 989 tons, 19 percent of the total, was buried, while the rest was incinerated.

Moreover, since biodegradable plastics are of a different origin than regular plastic, they must be kept separate when recycled.

“We are advising people to throw out biodegradable plastic bags as regular trash instead of recycling them,” said an official from the Environment Ministry. In other words, if biodegradable plastic bags don’t end up in landfills, they are just another waste.

Leftover pieces of plastic that get created after producing PLA bags also become “mere waste,” according to environmental activists. Remnants from traditional plastic bags can be reused to create a new plastic bag but biodegradable bags cannot do the same. According to an owner of a biodegradable plastic bag supplier, identified as A, “the leftover pieces that can’t be recycled should be incinerated by the company.”

In the case of Propack, the 8 to 9 tons of leftover pieces of plastic it creates a month gets incinerated. Propack however explained that it has recently developed a technology that will allow them to recycle leftover pieces of PLA.

Traditional plastic bag suppliers also argue that only permitting biodegradable plastic bags after the April 1 plastic ban decreases the effectiveness of the law. They insist that “reusing traditional plastic bags or using recycled plastic bags” should also be encouraged by the government.

Hong Su-yeol, chief of Resource Recycling Social Economic Research Institute said, “In [the] case of Korea where the majority of waste gets incinerated, biodegradable plastic bags can’t really act as an alternative to traditional plastic,” adding that “reusing plastic bags or using recycled plastic bags in unavoidable situations will be a better solution.”

Recycled plastic bags, referring to newly produced bags using recycled plastic, are mostly used in industrial complexes in Korea. However, more suppliers began to produce large garbage disposal bags for Korean households using recycled plastic. Under the current law, however, recycled plastic bags are not allowed to be provided at retailers, unlike biodegradables.

While there are different thoughts about different types of plastic bags, environmental activists argue that really none of them are good for the environment.

“The government should not encourage the use of biodegradable plastic bags and make people think they are environmentally friendly,” said Kim Mi-kyung, leader of Plastic Campaign Team at Greanpeace Korea. “We should encourage people to use less, reuse and recycle.”

BY KIM JEONG-YEON, YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]