That stinks: misleading advert for ‘poo bags’

The advertising watchdog has ruled that a pet product cannot be described as ‘biodegradable’ – but why is this relevant to foodservice? By David Burrows.

Bold claim. A product page for dog waste bags (yup, you are still logged in to FoodserviceFootprint.com) on the Ancol Pet Products website had the following text: "Refill Poop Bag Rolls … These thick waste bags are biodegradable to lessen your dog's impact on the environment.” The bags were made using a “controlled-life plastic technology” added during manufacture.

Say what? Basically, the bags are what’s called “oxo-biodegradable”. These plastics have extra ingredients that speed up degradation in the presence of oxygen. The webpage also said this process converted the material into organic materials which were then biodegradable by bacteria – and much more quickly than conventional plastics.

Sounds OK. Not really. There’s apparently no evidence to demonstrate the claims, the ASA said. The authority also consulted DEFRA, which confirmed that oxo-degradable plastics do degrade more quickly than conventional plastics but “there were concerns that plastic fragments and smaller microplastics were left behind” – and they then end up as fish food (see Footprint’s briefing on microplastics for more).

That’s not good. No. DEFRA also told the ASA that oxo-degradable plastics left in the open will break up into small fragments in the course of two to five years – and only then will biodegradation begin. “We considered that this length of time was not in line with how consumers were likely to interpret the term 'biodegradable',” the ASA said, and told Ancol to remove the ad.

OK. But what has all this got to do with foodservice? Oxo-biodegradable plastics are increasingly being marketed as “greener” alternatives to plastic that will “help protect the environment”. And not just for bags to pick up Fido’s poo, either. Suppliers of oxo-biodegradable cups, straws and cutlery are targeting foodservice companies, so this ruling “for the first time provides clarity to the market”, said David Newman from the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association. Indeed, oxo-plastics labelled as “biodegradable” could, according to some, be worse for the environment than conventional plastic. “Oxo-degradable plastics are still plastic, harm plastics recycling, can’t be composted, and are most likely just to fragment and pollute the environment,” according to the compostable packaging manufacturer Vegware. They also apparently muck up the plastic recycling stream.

No shit. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? Perhaps – the market for plastic alternatives, including compostables, is hot at the moment and everyone is trying to force their way to the head of the queue. But the European Commission has also seen flaws in oxo-plastics; in fact, they have become a focus of its new plastics strategy launched in January. A short report on the materials in January 2018 concluded: “From the available evidence it appears that the oxo-degradable plastics industry can create products with minimal toxic impact on flora and fauna; however, it has not been conclusively proven that there are no negative effects.” And specifically on marine plastic pollution, the oxo-degradable products could be worse: “As oxo-degradable plastic is likely to fragment quicker than conventional plastic, the negative impacts associated with the presence of microplastics in the marine environment are concentrated within a shorter period of time. This could ultimately be worse than spreading out the impacts over a longer period, due to an increase in the proportion of individuals, species and habitats affected, as well as the burden of impacts for an individual.”

What are they doing about it? Well, as part of the plastics strategy the European Commission has started a process to restrict the use of oxo-plastics in the EU (though the European Parliament last week called for a complete ban on the materials by 2020). The Commission said the lack of evidence that the technology is environmentally beneficial together with “misleading claims” (like those poo bags) leaves little option but to take action. While it hasn’t said there will be a ban, it has asked the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prepare restriction proposals for oxo-plastics (as well as for microplastic particles intentionally added to consumer or professional-use products of any kind). This means that every man and his dog (ahem) will be invited to submit relevant information to the ECHA.

Sounds a bit of a headache. Indeed. And the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association (OPA) says the commission is talking, well, crap and is preparing for a (long) fight. “We should have no difficulty adducing scientific evidence to satisfy ECHA that there is no such risk to the environment,” it has said. “On the contrary, the risk derives from conventional plastics.” The OPA also thinks there are a number of “serious errors” in the commission’s report. It cites the “world-leading” polymer scientist Ignacy Jakubowicz (an associate professor at the RISE research institutes in Sweden) who has said oxo-plastics “are not a general solution to our environmental problems but they provide benefits for the environment in some specific applications”.

Like what? He suggests agriculture and forestry uses, such as mulching films, but he doesn’t mention carrier bags, cups or cutlery – or indeed packaging at all. However, he has done research that he says proves oxo-plastics don’t have any significant impact on the quality of recyclates. In view of these misunderstandings, the OPA has been lobbying the commission to change its mind – and if it doesn’t, the OPA is happy to go to court over the matter, which “could take four years, and during that time we will be free to supply oxo-biodegradable plastic in the EU”.

OK, so what do I do? Given all the confusion it’s probably best to steer clear of oxo-plastics. Many companies already are. In November, 150 organisations – including Marks & Spencer, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia and WWF – signed a statement organised by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that called for a ban on oxo-degradable plastic packaging. If you are looking for biodegradable products, it’s important that this is defined by a time and a place. There are international standards for this – EN 13432 and EN 14995.

Great, I’ll do that. Not so fast. Those carrying the certifications still must end up in the right place (eg an industrial composting facility). There aren’t many of those, though there could be more soon. The golden rule is to make sure the packaging you buy will end up in the right place after you (and your customers) are done with it – which isn’t so easy when people buy things on-the-go. Indeed, MEPs agreed last week that biodegradable and compostable plastics “could aggravate the existing problem of plastics leakage and create problems for mechanical recycling. On the other hand, biodegradable plastics can certainly have a role in some applications and the innovation efforts in this field are welcomed.” So – a bit like dog mess – this all needs to be cleared up.

Yes, I’m still confused. Well, you might want to head to Footprint’s forum on plastics in foodservice, on Thursday September 20th, to find out more.

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