Degradable debate refuses to go away

Those promoting the benefits of oxobiodegradable plastics are about to find out whether UK regulators are on their side. David Burrows reports.

An image popped into my inbox last week. It showed the plastic bags containing the interpreter headsets for the UK presidency programme at COP26. These were marked ‘oxobiodegradable’ – the controversial packaging that shows little sign of going away despite the best attempts of regulators, fierce lobbying by compostable packaging manufacturers and doubts among food businesses and scientists.

Oxobiodegradables have been billed as a (cheap) silver bullet solution to plastic pollution. According to the Oxobiodegradable Plastics Association (OPA), the packaging contains an additive which “at little or no extra cost, turns ordinary plastic at the end of its useful life, in the presence of oxygen, into a material with a different molecular structure. At the end of the process, it is no longer a plastic, and has changed to a material which is biodegradable (by bacteria and fungi) in the open environment.”

The OPA has been lobbying at EU and UK level to ensure politicians understand the difference between oxobiodegradable and oxodegradable plastics. Their argument is that the latter create microplastic pollution but the former do not. “In fact, oxobiodegradable plastic was invented to deal with microplastics, not to create them,” wrote OPA founder Michael Stephen last year.

Stephen, who is also commercial director and deputy chairman at additives company Symphony Environmental Technologies, has managed to convince the former environment secretary Theresa Villiers that his products are worth a look. Ministers mulling over whether to follow the EU’s lead and ban them should think twice, Villiers suggested in September.

Article 5 of the EU single-use plastics directive (SUPD) bans oxodegradables along with a number of other single-use plastic items, including cutlery, plates and straws. Symphony has argued that the distinction between oxodegradable and oxobiodegradable must be made and has commenced a legal action against the Commission, Parliament, and Council of the European Union on this and other issues it has with the market restrictions of its products. 

Now, it has a similar fight on its hands in the UK. England is about to consult on introducing bans on a range of single-use plastic items. Scotland and Wales already have and want to align with the SUPD. But a recent report by ENDS suggested both might be having second thoughts regarding oxobiodegradables.

In March, Holyrood published the draft environmental protection (single-use plastic products and oxodegradable plastic products) (Scotland) regulations 2021. However, on a page detailing the new market restrictions, oxodegradables are nowhere to be seen on the list of restricted items. 

On Thursday (November 11th) the legislation was laid and from June 2022 the following will all be banned: plastic cutlery (forks, knives, spoons, chopsticks), plates, straws (with exemptions), beverage stirrers and balloon sticks; food containers made of expanded polystyrene; and cups and other beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, including their covers and lids. 

So no oxodegradable ban, then? Not yet. The government is keen to get cracking on the other bans rather than let the debate around the degradables hold everything up.

Zero Waste Scotland, which ran the government consultations, said: “Oxodegradable plastics are not included within the restrictions at this point in time. This is an area of significant complexity and rapid change and Scottish government is currently collecting further information on this area. The Scottish government however remains committed to meeting or exceeding the standards in the EU single-use plastics directive.”

The Welsh government, meanwhile, has been hamstrung by the United Kingdom Internal Markets Act (UKIMA), which was also noted as an issue in Scotland’s statement to accompany its new legislation last week. The Act governs the market conditions in the four nations in the UK, which determine the post-Brexit trading relationship between the UK and third parties. “The introduction of the UKIMA has created uncertainty on our plans to put these bans in place,” a Welsh government spokesperson explained, adding that “[we are] currently considering our position” in relation to oxodegradable and oxobiodegradable plastics.

A consultation on England’s bans is expected any day now. Oxodegradable and oxobiodegradable plastics are expected to be part of it; the thinking in Westminster has changed little since the government weighed up responses to its call for evidence on standards for biobased, biodegradable and compostable plastics. Feeding back in April and citing the review on oxodegradable plastics by the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee, the government noted “insufficient evidence demonstrating that oxodegradable/oxobiodegradable plastics perform as claimed and biodegrade in a reasonable timeframe in the open environment”.

In its report, the committee said oxobiodegradable remained a “poorly defined term that may reflect the claim that oxidising agents and fragmentation will lead to biodegradation or the presence of other agents that specifically stimulate biodegradation”. The Royal Society of Chemistry has also voiced doubts. In a recent paper it highlighted the lack of information on the additives used, how long they hang around for and the speed of the transformation process (whether it is quick enough in a range of environments without the release of microplastics).

The OPA’s argument is that this matters not. “It is not important how long a specific piece of plastic in a particular place will take to biodegrade – the importance of oxobiodegradable technology is that it will reduce the dwell-time and therefore the overall burden of plastic in the environment much more quickly than would otherwise be the case,” it wrote in a submission to the consultation on bans in Scotland. 

What if they present a bigger environmental problem though? RSC said “more independent testing is needed to determine whether these newer materials [oxobiodegradable plastics] overcome the clear problems identified in oxodegradable plastics before they are permitted for use”. 

The likes of Wrap are also following the precautionary principle: Wrap is “against” the use of these plastics and so too are members of its Plastics Pact, which should have already eliminated their use (results on whether they have done so are due this month). 

Wrap did however court controversy when it was linked to a new standard for biodegradable plastic. The organisation said it didn’t endorse the BSI standard (PAS9017) and had raised questions about why microplastics were only tested for at the end of the process rather than during the breakdown of the material. These appear to have gone unanswered. 

Polymateria, a startup based at Imperial College London and the company that funded PAS9017, has said its technology is “biotransformation” and has distanced itself from oxobiodegradables. Its polyethylene products break down in as little as 226 days, while its polypropylene ones take 336 days “leaving no microplastics behind”, according to Imperial’s website.

Again, there is ambiguity surrounding how it works. That hasn’t stopped Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics recently investing $100m (£75m) to pop the additive into its products. Prince Charles is also a fan.

UK corporates remain very wary – perhaps rightly so given the threat of an impending ban. Sodexo and the Foodservice Packaging Association were among 40 industry representatives, food companies and NGOs to sign a letter last year calling on the government to follow through with the bans on these degradable plastics. They will only encourage littering, disrupt recycling and add to the problem of microplastics, the letter argued, citing “increasing evidence” showing that microplastics are entering the food chain through animals, fruits and vegetables. 

The debate surrounding oxobiodegradables and other degradable plastics persists. In fact, England’s upcoming consultation could see it come to a head. Perhaps it will provide the clarity that the likes of RSC, the government and critics from across the food and packaging sectors say is lacking. In an interview with National Geographic last year, Polymateria CEO Neil Dunne said its biotransformation technology is “secret squirrel stuff”. It is surely wishful thinking to think UK regulators, companies and consumers won’t demand more detail than that.

1 Response

  1. A government cannot ban a product and cause serious damage to a lawful business just because a powerful lobby demands a ban, especially if that lobby is so obviously engaged in anti-competitive behaviour. Government must be satisfied that the product is damaging to human health or the environment and that a ban would be a proportionate response. In fact, the Report of the 4-year Oxomar study sponsored by the French government has proved beyond doubt that oxo-biodegradable plastics do biodegrade, even in the marine environment, much more efficiently than conventional plastics. Also, the European Chemicals Agency after ten months study were not convinced that they create microplastics. It is a disgrace that the EU ignored their own scientific experts and imposed a ban, and as a result they are now charged in their own courts with a misuse of legislative power. The UK government should tell the lobbyists without further delay that it cannot and will not ban oxo-biodegradable plastic.

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