On March 27, 2019, the European Parliament approved legislation - the European Single Use Plastics Directive (Directive 2019/904) – banning a number of specified single-use plastic products from being placed on the market from 2021 on.
The Directive explicitly also prohibits the use of oxo degradable plastics as an alternative to conventional plastics.
In an open letter to the government, a group of some 7 associations and Greenpeace are now also requesting a total ban on the use, sale and distribution in the UK of oxo degradable plastics, which are also variously known as oxo biodegradable, oxo fragmentable or bio-assimilable plastics.
The letter, dated 1 June, points out that ‘whilst the UK has left the EU we have retained the ambition to achieve at least the equivalent of European environmental norms. At the same time, were the UK to allow these plastics, anything containing them or packaged in them could not be exported to EU markets’.
“Overwhelming scientific evidence, including research commissioned by DEFRA3 and the EU, has demonstrated beyond doubt that the claims these additives transform polyolefin plastics into biodegradable plastics are unfounded. It is scientifically well-known that all polyolefin plastics are naturally prone to oxidation under environmental conditions (aging). Such oxidation ultimately leads to fragmentation and formation of microplastics, which build up in oceans and in soil,” the associations write.
“The "oxo-additives" are designed to accelerate the natural oxidation of polyolefins, causing an early fragmentation and the fragmentation of plastic products into microplastics. Thus the effect of these additives (if any) is merely to accelerate the conversion of macroplastics into microplastics, not solving the global problem of plastic pollution but worsening it.”
Moreover, plastics containing these additives are not recyclable and ‘render instable plastic polymers when recycled together’. Nor are they compostable, which leads to confusion among retailers and consumers.
“Whilst we in the UK are ourselves introducing national bans on single use plastics now is the time to also ban the scourge of plastic fragments deriving from oxo additives. We hope you will act quickly to implement this ban in the UK without further delay and respect the undertaking the UK voted for when this issue was raised in the EU,” the associations conclude.
The signatories to this open letter were the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA), the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), the ESA, the Foodservice Packaging Association (FPA), Greenpeace, A Plastic Planet, REA and Recoup.
Days later, the oxo degradable industry fired back with an open letter of its own, written and signed by Michael Laurier, CEO of Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc., a leading UK producer of oxo-degradable plastics.
Giving a blow-by-blow refutation of the issues raised, he asserted that the use of oxo degradable plastics could minimise the ‘environmental damage caused when ordinary plastics escape into the open environment’ - indeed, noting that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation accepted in their 2019 report that these plastics can ‘degrade faster than ordinary plastics and are biodegradable’.
In that report, however, the Foundation, however, went on to write that ‘it is not yet possible accurately to predict the duration of the biodegradation for such plastics. During this time, evidence suggests that fragments from oxo-degradable plastics contribute to microplastic pollution and this poses an environmental risk, particularly in the ocean. More research is, we believe, required to demonstrate how oxo-degradable plastics perform in real world environments’.
The report goes on to say that oxo-degradable plastics are not presently suited for effective long-term reuse, recycling at scale or composting.
“Therefore, whilst some manufacturers of oxo-degradable plastic contend their product is better for the environment than conventional plastic, in our opinion, its use is not presently consistent with a circular economy. In summary, the balance of the published evidence to date suggests oxo-degradable plastic packaging goes against two core principles of the circular economy: designing out waste and pollution; and keeping products and materials in high-value use.”