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Samoa looks to develop polymer bag from organic waste

Samoa could potentially replace the trickiest plastic to ban, if the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa (S.R.O.S.) successfully develops a polymer bag, from organic waste. 

S.R.O.S Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Seuseu Joseph Tauati, said the research should reduce plastic imports to Samoa and make good use of agricultural waste.

The Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (S.P.R.E.P.) Pollution Advisor, Anthony Talouli, said up to 44 per cent of waste in landfill is organic and needs to be used somehow.

Mr. Talouli said there is a market for organic plastic bin liners and packaging, where regular plastic bags are still the most commonly used commodity.

“I really commend them for wanting to do this. They were right on the forefront of biofuel and how they are going to compostable bags, which is really in tune with what they should be doing,” he said.

The challenge is to design a bag which is actually compostable or biodegradable. Many plastic bag alternatives purporting to be biodegradable come with their challenges, such as requiring industrial composting machines or very specific circumstances in which they can biodegrade.

To counter this issue, the United Nations Environment Programme (U.N.E.P.) is developing biodegradability guidelines. 

They are not out yet, but when they are, S.R.O.S. will need to follow them closely, Mr. Talouli said. 

“Our old plastic bags were ‘biodegradable,’ some our plastic water bottles have ‘biodegradable’ on it, and they are not biodegradable except in industrial compost systems which we don’t have in the Pacific,” he said.

But using organic waste in this productive and creative way can only be a good thing, he continued. Plastics for a purpose have an important part to play in society.

“As bin liners end up in our waste management systems they would be compostable, and that is perfect,” said Mr. Talouli.

“I am not sure what the stock feed will be for these bags but it will be a diversion of waste that would end up in landfill, or somewhere else.

“The most obvious once are tapioca or starch based, so taro chips, breadfruit chips, that is probably a good source of raw materials,” he added. 

The trouble with plastic is that it breaks up rather than break down and as it ages, it becomes smaller and smaller and ends up on the food chain on land and sea.

Mr. Talouli said this quality makes plastic the best “weapon of mass destruction".

For some, bin liners exemplify the way plastic has become an essential part of modern life. An organic alternative on the market place would be an environmental win.

S.P.R.E.P. uses organic bin liners to line their compost bins, Mr. Talouli said. They are imported from Australia because they are not available in the Pacific and are not common globally either. A locally made option would of course be better.

Eventually, S.R.O.S could sell the technology and design to a larger Pacific country with the capacity to mass produce these bags for the region or the world. 

“For example, the plastic factory in Fiji that distributes across the small islands employ about 300 local Fijians. 

“Fiji just announced they will ban single use plastic bags come the first of January 2020, and I am sure that country is transitioning to paper bags, but this could be welcome news and it is an opportunity for S.R.O.S to research into this,” he said.

Depending on the infrastructure and the equipment, the organic polymer bags could be expensive. If Government can support business in waste management by subsidising them, they could afford to competitively price their products.

Fiji announced a tax incentive for the waste management industry last week, stating companies who set up waste management in the Naboro landfill (half an hour from Suva) could enjoy income tax exemption for capital investments, and an import duty exemption on raw materials, plant machinery and other equipment.

“That could be something that could attract businesses into Samoa if Government could assist like that,” he said.

Here in Samoa, the Tafaigata Industrial Compost shed was given by government to encourage waste management practices.

With the move away from single use commodities and the single use plastic ban already in place, you could be forgiven for feeling confused about S.R.O.S’s foray into single use plastics. 

Mr Talouli said he too was confused but realised if they can replace the plastic that continues to dominate everyday life that will be positive. 

“We are still importing a lot of plastic bags. You can see when you go to market, when you go to buy fish. Those are the sort of businesses S.R.O.S could help.”

Samoa Conservation Society President, James Atherton said from a conservation perspective, behaviour needs to move away from single use “anything", and hopes S.R.O.S will be trying to have as little impact on the environment as possible in the development of this product.

“The world cannot continue as it is with businesses that extract more than they put back in the environment,” Mr Atherton said. 

“We have got to find alternatives that are environmentally balanced, or environmentally positive, otherwise we are screwed.”

Inevitably a business will affect the environment. But efforts should be made to offset that, and diverting the organic waste stream is one way to do that.

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