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Good Riddance To Bad Rubbish

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[Photo of spoon & fork]Innovations in plastic will finally let us say good riddance to bad rubbish.

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word: plastics.

They're clogging up our streams and rivers and filling our garbage dumps. If we learned anything from Manila's recent bout with flash floods, it's that the trash that we throw out does come back to haunt us.

Plastic waste comes back to us in ways less dramatic than flooding, too. Ways that we don't even see. Plastic waste that makes it out to sea gather in the middle of the ocean to form entire islands of floating plastic—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is two times bigger than the continental United States—where they are broken down by sunlight. The floating plastic particles absorb toxins and pollutants from the water, and often end up eaten by fish. The same fish that we eat, and that we probably took home in a plastic bag.

In its bid to reduce plastic bag use, Ireland imposed a levy on plastic bags in 2002. San Francisco followed suit in 2007 by banning all free plastic bags, and many establishments in Hong Kong now charge customers HK$0.50 per plastic bag to encourage them to bring their own. A similar bill has been filed at the RP House of Representatives, requiring stores to charge up to 2 pesos for each plastic bag their customers use. Critics claim, however, that there is no evidence that the levies curb plastic bag usage at all.

With a return to paper bags a no go because of deforestation, are we stuck with plastic bags that will be on Earth longer than we will? If the Eco Expo Asia 2009 organized by the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council is any indication, the plastic industry is already working on a solution that will benefit both their pockets and the Earth.

Don't Panic, It's Organic

[Photo of glass with plastic debris]Firms like Hong Kong-based Dynasty Vitality Ltd have been developing plastic products that use Biodegradable Starch Resin to replace the polyethylene in regular plastic. As the starch decomposes, the plastic molecules breaks down as well. This allows microorganisms in the soil to fully degrade the plastic within 180 days in a typical compost pit. The firm claims that its BSR technology can be  used in most plastic products, from bags to disposable food containers to pens, all easily disposed of by nature.

BioBag Australasia uses the same concept, using GMO-free corn in its BioFilm products geared towards home use. They offer biodegradable garbage bags, kitchen waste bags and even garbage bins. Taking the concept of waste management further, BioBag also has the BioDoggy Bag for picking up after pets, and the BioToi, a portable toilet for campers that beats squatting over a hole in the ground.

Biodegradable plastic, much like its ecologically-unfriendly predecessors, are not limited to disposable, single-use items. A Malaysian firm, Melsom, has developed durable plastic tableware made from discarded rice husks. The products are reminiscent of 1960s-era Melaware, but updated for a more environmentally-aware world.

“We are not melamine,” Melsom key account manager Calvin Koh proudly exclaims. With melamine now in a bad light after the tainted-milk scare of 2008, it's no wonder that the company would use that as a come on. Koh says that their products aren't even technically plastic since they're made with pulverized rice husks that have been compressed and baked into a plastic-like material. “Even the finish is made of rice husks,” he says.He says that Melsom helps reduce plastic use with tableware that can be reused repeatedly, and then composted when thrown away.

[Photo of a buyer from HKTDC expo]Oh, This Old Thing?

While companies are already working on creating plastics that won't choke the Earth's waters, what about the plastic we already have? A company in Hong Kong called Forleda Eco-Services proposes that you wear it. They turn discarded PET bottles into t-shirts. Printed with trendy slogans and designs, the shirts are a hit with at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Yarn from the PET bottles can also be used to make reusable shopping bags and umbrellas for corporate promotions. Their clients include environmental groups like WWF Hong Kong, as well as government institutions like the Sha Tin District Council and Macau International Airport.

Awareness of the need to be more eco-friendly has been growing, along with a need for products that will make consumers feel good about their purchases. Cashing in on this consumer trend is just a matter of—as another plastic manufacturer, Goody Environmental Co., Ltd puts it in an ad for biodegradable water bottles—satisfying the world's thirst to make a difference.

While the world's efforts to be more eco-friendly are mainly focused on fuel efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, that doesn't mean we should limit ourselves to them. Saving the Earth is everyone's responsibility, and everything from the kind of fuel we use to the type of food we eat, and the packaging it comes in can either contribute to, or mitigate climate change. Going green shouldn't always mean going primitive, just making more conscious lifestyle decisions. Plastic doesn't have to be such a dirty word after all.

Print ed: 01/10


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