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OPA summarises the position of Oxo-biodegradable plastic in the European Union

February 27th, 2018


There is no EU ban on oxo-biodegradable plastic

However, the Commission has requested the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prepare a restriction dossier, on the ground that that “potential risk to the environment may arise from the use of oxo-plastics …. because of their potential to initiate the generation of microplastics.”

This request is fundamentally misconceived, and we should have no difficulty adducing scientific evidence to satisfy ECHA that there is no such risk to the environment.  On the contrary, the risk derives from conventional plastics.

The Commission knows that fragments of conventional plastic will lie or float around as microplastics for a hundred years or more before they become biodegradable, and that this is the source of most of the microplastics which researchers are finding in the oceans. These plastics are very persistent and very accumulative, and should certainly be banned or restricted in Europe, as has already been done in the Middle East.  The UAE passed legislation in 2009 and Saudi Arabia has followed their example.

As to oxo-biodegradable plastic, the Commission’s 2018 Report says that it “fragments over time into plastic particles, and finally microplastics, with similar properties to microplastics originating from the fragmentation of conventional plastics” but this is a serious error, as their properties are significantly different. The process is described by Prof. Ignacy Jakubowicz, one of the world’s leading polymer scientists, in his criticism of the Ellen MacArthur Report, which had made the same mistake. He says of oxo-biodegradation “The degradation process is not only a fragmentation, but is an entire change of the material from a high molecular weight polymer, to … oxygen-containing molecules which can be bioassimilated.”

DG Environment do not accept that this is true, but they cannot identify any scientist who says that Prof. Jakubowicz is wrong.   This point is absolutely crucial to an understanding of oxo-biodegradable plastic technology, and it was explained to Commission officials at DG Environment on 30th November 2017 by the leader of the scientific team at Queen Mary University London, who had actually observed and photographed micro-organisms consuming oxo-biodegradable residues. The plastic film goes through a continuous abiotic and then biotic process, which is irreversible.

If the plastic merely fragmented without biodegrading, CEN would not have defined oxo-biodegradability, and the American and British and French Standards authorities would not have included tests for biodegradability in ASTM D6954, BS8472 and AC T51-808

The Commission also says “It is clear that oxo-degradable plastic is prohibited from degradation if not first exposed to UV radiation and, to a certain extent, heat.” If this were true it would be no worse than conventional plastic in that situation, but this is another serious error.  UV exposure and ambient heat will accelerate the process, but they are not essential.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic does not contain any of the hazardous substances listed in Art 11 of the Packaging Waste Directive nor in EN13432 (which is the European standard for plastics intended for composting).  Also, oxo-biodegradable plastics are tested according to the same eco-toxicity tests prescribed by EN13432 for plastics intended for composting.

In view of these serious misunderstandings we think that the Commission should reconsider its position and withdraw its request from ECHA. If they do not, we will submit the necessary evidence to ECHA, and if necessary to the courts, but it could take four years, and during that time we will be free to supply oxo-biodegradable plastic in the EU.

As each week goes by, thousands more tons of conventional plastic finds its way into the open environment.  If action had been taken years ago to adopt oxo-biodegradable plastic technology there would be no ocean garbage patches of plastic today.  There has been, and continues to be, a serious failure by the EU Commission and member-states to address this matter effectively, to the great detriment of future generations.


26th February 2018

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