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Doubts are voiced on 'degradable' plastic waste.

Doubts Are Voiced On 'Degradable' Plastic Waste

"An innovative and widely promoted effort to sell plastic products that are 'degradable' could be causing more environmental problems than it is solving" was the gist of a front page New York Times article in late October that warned against a reliance on degradability as a solution to the country's waste disposal problems.

"The very ingredients added to make a plastic break down can make it less fit for recycling programs that are far more beneficial ... it is unclear whether the plastic breaks down into elements that are any less harmful than the plastic itself," according to the Times.

Another chief concern was that the concentration on biodegradables would divert the public from participating in local recycling programs and that recycling, currently in its infancy, would never be given a chance to mature as a solution.

"Degradable is a warm and fuzzy word, like organic and natural," said Richard Denison, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, in the article. "The concern is that if people think you can toss plastic away and it magically disappears, they will just toss it away."

The article praised disposable diapers as one of the industries that was moving swiftly toward degradable plastic products.

Despite articles like this and a growing awareness of the disposability problem, plastic products in consumer goods continue to grow. The article quoted a report from the Environmental Action Coalition that estimated that plastics would constitute about 10% of municipal solid waste by the end of the century, compared with 3% in 1970. "In a survey of supermarkets," the Times went on to say, "it found that 50% of all items were packaged entirely in plastic.

"And plastic containers are a disproportionately large disposal problem because of the space they take up in landfills. Estimates are that plastics consume 30% of landfill space.

"Plastics industry officials say that more than 350 legislative initiatives have been introduced at the federal, state and local levels in the last year," but no major legislation has been passed yet.

While many companies have been researching and touting the benefits of biodegradables, the plastics industry has gone on record as preferring recycling. Karl Kamena, of Dow Chemical, Midland, MI, felt that "degradable plastic is inherently a less valuable material. Products made from recycled degradable plastic are likely to be weaker and perform less well than those made from virgin chemicals." A group, the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, has been formed by plastics producers to promote recycling.

Another important issue concerns what the plastics degrade into. "Biodegradable products based on starch wind up as plastic dust after microorganisms eat the starch. 'I consider this to be a consumer scam,' said Nancy Wolf, executive director of the Environmental Action Coalition. 'People think it becomes soil but it does not. You end up with shards of plastic.' Other potential dangers of all plastics, environmentalists say, are the release of chemicals used in their preparation and the escape of toxic coloring agents once the plastic starts to break down."
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:excerpt from October 25, 1989 New York Times article
Author:Noonan, Ellen
Publication:Nonwovens Industry
Date:Dec 1, 1989
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