OPINION: Michael Stephen is a barrister, former MP, and director of Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc, a company which develops additives for biodegradable plastics. In this article he discusses the proposed ban on what is termed ‘oxo-degradable’ plastic.
SYMPHONY CHALLENGES BIOPLASTICS LOBBY – by Michael Stephen
I write this opinion in light of the article WRAP caught up in degradable plastics row and previous reports.
Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc would support a ban on oxo-degradable plastic – which is essentially ordinary or photo-degradable or bio-based plastic that creates microplastics but does not biodegrade in the open environment – but oxo-BIOdegradable plastic is an entirely different technology.
On 29 October, Symphony received a letter from the Rt. Hon. Theresa Villiers MP, who said: “I am writing to say that as a former UK Secretary of State for the Environment I see no justification for banning oxo-BIOdegradable plastic. In fact I consider it highly desirable that everyday plastics should be made so that they will biodegrade much more quickly if they get into the open environment and will not lie or float around for decades.”
“I see no justification for banning oxo-BIOdegradable plastic”
Oxo-BIOdegradable plastic was invented by the scientists who created oil-based plastic, and who realised that its durability could be a problem as it could lie or float around for decades in the environment. They therefore found a way to make the plastic convert after its programmed useful life into non-toxic biodegradable materials, by reducing the molecular weight to the point where micro-organisms could consume it. They called this process “oxo-BIOdegradation,” and it will work anywhere in the environment, including the oceans, where oxygen is present, without any need to take the plastic to a composting facility.
This technology has been validated by 40 years of research, most recently in 2020 by the internationally-respected scientists at Queen Mary University London and the LOMIC (Laboratory of Microbial Oceanography) laboratory in France.
So why is all the everyday plastic in the world not being made with oxo-BIOdegradable technology?
The answer is that just before oxo-BIOdegradable plastic was brought to market, some very large companies had introduced a plastic which they described as “compostable” which has some serious disadvantages, see https://www.biodeg.org/composting/ They saw oxo-BIOdegradable plastic as a threat to their market share and lobbied and campaigned against it.
This has contributed to Article 5 of the EU Single Use Plastics Directive, which does not use the CEN TR15351 definitions, and fails to distinguish between oxo-degradable and oxo-BIOdegradable plastic. This legislation has circumvented the REACH process which must be followed before any substance can be banned, and appears to have ignored the EU’s own scientific experts at ECHA, who were not convinced that microplastics were formed. It is therefore likely to be challenged in the courts.
The lobbying campaign continues to this day, with letters to the UK press. The lobbyists’ arguments do not make sense but they seem to think that getting a large number of supporters to sign their letter would make up for the weakness of their case. Let us hope that the UK government will not be taken in.
It must be obvious that advancing one bad point after another against the oxo-bio industry, and ignoring the distinction between oxo-degradable and oxo-BIOdegradable plastic, is wrong and counterproductive.
For example, the lobbyists say: “Increasing evidence is showing microplastics entering our food chain through animals, fruits and vegetables. The full health implications of this are yet unknown.” True, but they know perfectly well that these microplastics are coming from ordinary plastics and from their own bio-based plastics, and that the European Chemicals Agency is not convinced that microplastics are formed by oxo-BIOdegradable plastic. In fact oxo-BIOdegradable plastic was invented to deal with microplastics, not to create them.
They continue “Recycling facilities are unable to differentiate between conventional plastics and these doctored alternatives. This renders recycled plastic useless as it is contaminated with additives designed to degrade it.” They have scored an own-goal here, because PLA plastics, made from polylactic acid such as derived from sugar cane, will certainly compromise a plastics recycling waste-stream. Oxo-biodegradable plastics will not do so – for the reasons given at https://www.biodeg.org/recycling-and-waste/
And, with regard to the statement that “This plastic will also find its way into composting and biogas facilities, causing severe financial damage to the sector, and make it harder to produce high quality composts and biofertilisers,” this is most unlikely, because many operators of composting and biogas facilities will not accept plastics of any kind, see: Composters don’t want compostable packaging
Governments and consumers are waking up to the fact that the decision-making process is being distorted to the commercial advantage of the lobbyists and their clients, and to the disadvantage of the population and the environment. If they are allowed to succeed, they will have deprived policymakers of the only way of dealing with plastic waste which has escaped into the environment and cannot be collected for recycling or anything else. The burden of plastic will keep mounting up until there is more plastic in the sea than fish.
Michael Stephen is Commercial Director and Deputy Chairman of Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc, and Chairman of its subsidiary companies. He was called to the Bar, and practised from chambers in London for many years, dealing with civil cases in the High Court and Court of Appeal. He was a member of the UK Parliament 1992-97 and was a member of the Trade and Industry Select Committee and the Environment Select Committee of the House of Commons. He served in Government as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture.