‘Biodegradable plastic’ bags not as safe as widely presumed

The National Environment Commission (NEC) in consultation with the relevant stakeholders recently notified the general public on the nationwide reinforcement of the plastic ban with effect from April this year.

Although there has been a general acknowledgment of the decision given that the country is currently grappling with waste management issues, people, however, are doubtful of its effectiveness and long-term success of this directive considering the past trends.

Why biodegradable plastic is not an option

Ever since the announcement of the ban, many shopkeepers and public alike have been considering biodegradable plastic bags as one of the alternatives to the conventional plastics that would soon be banned. However, Thinley Dorji, the Chief Environment Officer under the Waste Management Division, NEC said the biodegradable plastics cannot be a viable option as it also harms the environment and a ban is also warranted on the same.

“We carried out a research on the biodegradable plastics and as the name suggests, it decomposed within 5 or 6 months, unlike the plastics we use in our everyday life that takes up to 10-1000 years. We then carried out a test on the chemical composition but we detected heavy metal contents such as lead, arsenic, and mercury among others in the biodegradable plastic,” said Thinley Dorji.

The Chief Environment Officer explained that such heavy metal additives help the so-called ‘environment-friendly’ plastics to break down quicker than the conventional and widely used plastics in presence of light, oxygen, heat and moisture. He also added that further consultation with the UN Environment confirmed heavy metal contents in such products.

“We cannot confirm the exact amount of heavy metal content because it differs from the manufacturing companies but there’s no doubt about the presence of heavy metal. The test confirmed that the amount of such contents in each biodegradable plastic is negligible but we cannot rule out its cumulative impact in the long run, considering that tons of it will be used in absence of the traditional plastics after its ban,” Thinley said. The toxic effects of these metals remain present in some or the other form harmful for the human body and its proper functioning.

Thinley Dorji also said that conventional plastics, or for that matter even the biodegradable plastics do not decompose right away and shreds into micro plastics which can be flown to the rivers where the water is usually too cold down to break down the particles.

“So the plastics either float forever on the surface, like the conventional plastics and even if they break down, tiny plastic fragments will be produced that are harmful to aquatic life,” said Thinley. We should re-adopt the indigenous practice of using baskets and bags while going out for shopping.

Rationale behind the reinforcement of the ban

Thinley said that plastics have become a necessary evil given the versatility of the product and the nuisance it has been causing to the environment. The main rationale behind the reinforcement of the ban at this point of time after several failed attempts in the past is to act against the ever-increasing waste management issues across the country and acted in line with the Amendment 2016 to protect and sustain human health through protection of the environment by reducing the generation of waste at source.

“Plastics, if used sensibly are not an issue at all but here in Bhutan, plastics are mismanaged and it is not sustainable for the environment. And alternatives after the ban of the traditional plastic can be anything that is not plastics. Prior to the introduction of plastic bags in the country, people used to carry bags made from paper, clothes and Jude bags and weaved baskets. Moreover, shopkeepers can keep paper bags and eco-friendly bags and charge a nominal amount for it. Or else the customers can make the habit of taking their own carry bags while going for shopping.”

The ban on plastics will include doma wrappers, homemade ice-creams, vegetables packed in plastics, homemade snacks like Zaws (roasted rice) and Sips (beaten maize) among other homemade plastic packaged products to reduce the usage and dependency on plastics.

Strategies to ensure the success of the ban reinforcement 2019

The ban was issued by the then Ministry of Trade and Industry in1999 in collaboration with the then Ministry of Health and Education, the then Ministry of Communication, the National Environment Commission and the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce & Industry. Since NEC took the initiative to reinforcement the ban, Thinley Dorji said that in order to ensure its success this time, cooperation from the general public is very crucial and stringent monitoring will also be carried out.

“We are seeking cooperation from the relevant stakeholders and we have issued notifications to all the agencies for this reinforcement to be taken seriously. Single effort from NEC cannot help the country in realizing our vision of clean and green Bhutan. It is also encouraging to know that some dzongkhags have already taken up the reinforcement on plastic ban very seriously. We are hopeful that if necessary support from general public and relevant agencies is rendered, the reinforcement on the ban this time should work out,” said the Chief Environment Officer.

NEC is also carrying out nationwide awareness to help the public better understand the rationale for the reinforcement of the ban and solicit their support.

Thinley Dorji said since the majority of the pre-packaged goods are imported, there is nothing much that can be done at the moment on the plastics generated from such products, other than to encourage proper disposal.


Pema Tshering, the manager of the MyMart store in the capital said although it is a noble initiative, most customers prefer plastics over other carry bags as it is more convenient. “If the reinforcement on the ban is serious this time, we have no other option than to comply accordingly. On the substitutes, we have been considering biodegradable plastic, but if that is also not safe for the environment we might have to switch to other carry bags made of paper or clothing,” said the Pema.

The manager of Eight Eleven in the capital said that the store has been providing paper bags to customers for a very long time to reduce plastic waste in the country.

“We have been providing paper bags to our customers for a long time except during few instances where the customers ask for plastic bags when it becomes inconvenient for them to carry their purchase in paper bags. We thought we had the option of switching to biodegradable plastic bags, but if that too is going to affect the environment, we might have to stick with paper bags,” said the manager.

Nedup Tshering, the Executive Director of Clean Bhutan Organization said that that reinforcement on the plastic ban by the NEC is a good move and should keep on working to make it more effective.

“People, instead of asking for a substitute should carry bags made from Jude and other shopping baskets. Moreover, now is the right time for the entrepreneurs to explore sustainable business ideas on the same.”

Nedup Tshering also suggested that instead of corporate companies spending huge amounts annually on calendars and diaries, it would be wiser if they can come up with sustainable carry bags as part of Corporate Social Responsibility. “Besides, people cannot expect to be spoon-fed all the time, especially when it’s a noble initiative as this which will benefit the whole country.”

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