150 Organizations Call for Ban on ‘Biodegradable’ Plastic Packaging

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastic, circular economy, zero waste, microplastics, bioplastic, Leon Kaye, packaging

For several years, oxo-degradable plastic packaging was hailed as one solution to cope with mounting pollution and overwhelmed municipal waste streams. These materials could be made out of conventional plastic resins, such as polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene, with ingredients such as metal salts added to hasten disintegration. This grade of packaging also includes plant-based resins that could biodegrade in industrial composting or biogas generating facilities.

But today, 150 various organizations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, have announced that the science suggests that these plastics are contributing to, not alleviating, the micro-plastic pollution damaging ecosystems worldwide.

The organizations cite research undertaken by universities, government agencies, laboratories, plastic trade associations and NGOs that have concluded oxo-degradable plastics are not suited for long-term reuse, recycling or composting. Instead, evidence has shown that these plastics often fragment into small pieces often not visible to the naked eye; those microplastic particles in turn often end up in both soil and oceans.

“The available evidence overwhelmingly suggests oxo-degradable plastics do not achieve what their producers claim and instead contribute to microplastic pollution,” said Rob Opsomer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in an emailed statement to TriplePundit. “In addition, these materials are not suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting, meaning they cannot be part of a circular economy.”

Some companies and governments have responded to concerns about oxo-degradable plastics by restricting their use, particularly within Europe. In the United Kingdom, retailers such as Tesco stopped distributing plastic bags made out of oxo-degradable resins. France banned the use of oxo-degradable plastics altogether in 2015; a similar ban in Spain will begin next year.

The problem, however, is that oxo-degradable plastics are still manufactured in many European countries. The packaging is then marketed and sold across the world with the promise that it is safely biodegradable. Several countries in the Middle East and Africa, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Ghana, encourage the distribution of oxo-degradable plastics, or have even made their use mandatory.

The signatories of this letter insist oxo-degradable plastic packaging be banned until extensive, independent third-party research and testing based on widely accepted international standards can confirm these materials can actually biodegrade without any harm to the environment. Furthermore, the organizations say more research and innovation are needed to develop plastics that can biodegrade in different environments over a period of time short enough so that particles do not to accumulate in soil or oceans.

In the meantime, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative seeks a zero waste and regenerative system that can work with innovations in plastic. Such materials would be designed so they do not create waste and pollution; they would also encourage the manufacture of products and materials that not only have a high value, but would fall in line with the what the NGO says are the principles of a circular economy.

Organizations that say they are aligned with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation include Marks and Spencer, PepsiCo, Unilever, Veolia and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“Using oxo-degradable additives is not a solution for litter. Their use in waste management systems will likely cause negative outcomes for the environment and communities,” said Erin Simon, Director of Sustainability Research and Development at WWF. “When confidential public policy supports the cascading use of materials – systems where materials get reused over and over, this strengthens economies and drives the development of smarter materials management systems. This leads to wins for both the environment and society.”

Image credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

3 responses

  1. Excellent article! Science has proven that the claims of the best regarded scientists do not hold water. This happens more often that you would believe. These biodegradable plastics were pushed and accepted based on believable science. Anyone who stood in the way of these advancements was brushed aside.

    There are many cases where scientists are pushing believable theories and asking society to make dramatic changes based on these theories. These Oxo – biodegradable plastics are common in India, China, South America etc only because they were believed to fully degrade. Surprise, they do not and actually worsen pollution because people believe the theory and expect them to disappear.

    Climate change is another exciting group of theories and we certainly are being pushed hard to make drastic changes. Consider the chance that this too could be found later to be exaggerated and even completely wrong. Change at all costs is a mistake, especially when the scientists do not claim that anything we do will solve the theoretical problems they highlight. Let’s balance cost with benefit and try not to swing too wildly to react to the latest Chicken Little story.

  2. As an d2w oxobiodegradable distributor for Portugal and Spain we agree that oxodegradable plastic should be banned. Oxodegradable as oxofragmentable or hydro-fragmentable plastics make plastic degrade in small particle that may contaminate the environment.
    Oxodegradable plastic should not be confused with oxobiodegradable plastic. The oxobiodegradable technology is defined by CEN (the European Standards Organisation) {CEN/TR 1535–2006} as “degradation resulting from oxidative and cell-mediated phenomena, either simultaneously or successively.”
    Oxobiodegradable plastic are tested according to ASTM D6954 or BS8472 or AFNOR Accord T51-808.

    d2w produced by Symphony Environmental is the only oxobiodegradable plastic additive to be awarded an internationally-recognized Eco-label. The Eco-Label proves the environmental credentials of d2w and distinguishes it from all other oxo-biodegradable additives on the market, helping to enhance the ‘green value’ of the brand.
    The oxobiodegradable technology is a to stage process.
    1 – Degradation: During abiotic degradation polymers undergo free radical oxidation reactions which results in chain cleavage, to produce reduced molecular weight oxidation products (Alcohol, Ketone, Aldehyde, carboxylic acid and others). This process is an ongoing process is initiated in ambient conditions when exposed to oxygen in the air/water and accelerated by exposure to UV light and/or increased temperature.
    2- Biodegradation: The low molecular weight oxidation products that form after the abiotic degradation stage are consumed by microorganisms, in the same way as degradation compounds produced by dead plants. As a result, CO2 and Biomass.
    The oxobiodegradation technology has been extensively tested by many laboratories around the world it has been proven safe and effective.
    The oxo technology and the EU
    In the final stage of the political decision-making process amending EU Directive 94/62
    about reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags the legislator
    adopted an article in 2015 that required the European Commission to “present a
    report to the European Parliament and to the Council, examining the impact of the
    use of oxo-degradable plastic carrier bags on the environment and present a
    legislative proposal, if appropriate”.

    To help the Commission with its assessment of the impact of oxo-biodegradable plastic carrier bags on the environment it commissioned a report from the independent technical-scientific consultancy firm Eunomia Research & Consulting. This report was published on 6 April 2017.
    The politically most notable finding of the Eunomia report is that “The debate around
    the biodegradability of PAC plastic is not finalized, but should move forward from the
    assertion that PAC plastics merely fragment, towards confirming whether the
    timeframes observed for total biodegradation are acceptable from an environmental
    point of view and whether this is likely to take place in natural environments.”

    For Information: Oxobiodegradable plastics and products are not banned in France.
    For more information: http://www.symphonyenvironmental.com/rethinking-future-plastics/

  3. This is another example where engineers worked to solve a past environmental problem to make a better world for future generations but the solution that they created turned out to have its own unintended consequences. Perhaps we should learn some lessons from the confidence that drove this development project.

    I’m glad the article presented some alternative options and solutions.

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