I LEARNED from the news that the Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA) will ban plastics. It will be the first plastic-free airport in the country, as their management claim. I am not exactly pleased by this move. Why? Because the MCIA will still allow the use of biodegradable plastic.

Biodegradable plastic is not the solution to the plastic waste problem. In fact, it may even cause another problem. Only recently, a committee of British lawmakers said that the biodegradable and compostable alternatives that are often touted as a great replacement, are in fact a problem in themselves. They said that most require an industrial composting facility to break down, and most people do not have access to this. This was confirmed by a United Nations report.

The UN report entitled, "Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter. Misconceptions, Concerns and Impacts on Marine Environments," concludes that “the adoption of plastic products labelled as ‘biodegradable’ will not bring about a significant decrease either in the quantity of plastic entering the ocean or the risk of physical and chemical impacts on the marine environment, on the balance of current scientific evidence.” The report said that complete biodegradation of plastics occurs in conditions that are rarely, if ever, met in marine environments.

The report finds that plastics most commonly used for general applications, such as polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are not biodegradable in marine environments. Polymers, which biodegrade under favourable conditions on land, are much slower to break up in the ocean and their widespread adoption is likely to contribute to marine litter and consequent undesirable consequences for marine ecosystems.

The study also analyzes the environmental impacts of oxo-degradable plastics, enriched with a pro oxidant, such as manganese, which precipitates their fragmentation. It found that in marine environments the fragmentation is fairly slow and can take up to 5 years, during which the plastic objects continue to litter the ocean. In the fragmentation process, the pieces of plastic can be ingested by marine organisms and facilitate the transport of harmful microbes, pathogens and algal species.

So, commercial establishments who tout biodegradable plastics as their contribution to environmental protection should study their actions thoroughly. I remember what happened many years ago when I was invited by SM Rosales in Pangasinan to discuss solid waste management. In the open forum, one student asked the mall managers how long it takes for their biodegradable plastic to break down. None of the mall officers was able to answer.

The best way to solve the plastic bag problem is to avoid it. Carrying reusable bags, basket of bayong is the best way to avoid plastic bags. Alternatives like paper bags may be the second best solution if the customer has no reusable bag.