Biodegradation & Composting OXO People and Leaders

Questions and Answers on OXO-Biodegradability

Exclusive Interview with Michael Stephen, Chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

There seem to be a polemic around OXO-degradable and OXO-biodegradable technology. One of the main principles of our western society is to give the chance to all parties to express themselves even if we don’t agree with them. Fair trial is a pillar of our western democracies. Fair trial assumes ‘right of opinion’ and ‘freedom of speech’.

Michael Stephen, Chairman of OPA
  • Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a lawyer who was a member of the United Kingdom Parliament, where I served on the Environment Select Committee.

  • What is your current occupation?

I am now Deputy Chairman of Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc and the founder and Chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

The OPA has been established for more than ten years and now has more than 1600 members worldwide, working in all sectors of the oxo-biodegradable plastics industry.

  • How did you come to work in the plastics industry?

When I left the UK Parliament I was offered a number of non-executive directorships. One which attracted my attention was Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc, because of my interest in environmental policy on the Environment Committee of the House of Commons.

Symphony is a public company listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, and I am now an executive director.

It was obvious to me that plastic is immensely useful and is the best way to prevent food wastage and sickness, by protecting our food from contamination and damage.

It is much better than paper, cardboard or cloth, particularly when wet – but there is one fundamental problem – that if it gets into the open environment as litter it will lie and float around for decades, and perhaps 100 years before biodegrading.

That is the reason why there is so much opposition to plastic, but it is now possible to solve this problem by redesigning the plastic itself using oxo-biodegradable technology.

In many countries, measures have been proposed for reducing the amount of plastic in use and for redesigning and recycling plastic products.

These are desirable aims and we support them, but it is unrealistic to think that these measures are going to prevent all plastic waste getting into the open environment, even in the developed world for the foreseeable future.

The situation is alarming at global level, with 8 million tonnes ending up in the sea each year. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, 600,000 tonnes of plastic are being dumped by 22 countries every year.

This plastic will rapidly fragment into microplastics which can lie or float around for many decades, and banning peripheral items like drinking straws, cotton buds, and microplastics in cosmetics, is not going to solve the problem.

A substantial amount of plastic will continue to get into the open environment from which it cannot realistically be collected, and it is this fraction of plastic waste for which most of the world’s governments have no immediate answer.

  • Can you tell us more about OXO-biodegradability? When, how and by whom was it invented?

By Professor Gerald Scott and his colleagues in England in the 1970s. They had designed plastic to be durable but they realised that this very durability would cause a problem if the plastic gets into the open environment as litter.

They therefore looked for ways to make the molecular structure of the plastic dismantle automatically when it had served its purpose, and they created oxo-biodegradable plastic.

  • What are the most important patents / IPs?

The catalyst is included in a “masterbatch” which is a very sophisticated combination of prodegradants and stabilisers. The actual formulations are commercially confidential.

  • What is oxo-biodegradable plastic?

Oxo-bio plastic products are made from ordinary polymers but the manufacturer of the product adds a catalyst to the polymer mix which accelerates a change in the molecular structure if it becomes litter in the open environment, so that it becomes biodegradable much more quickly than ordinary plastic.

Oxo-biodegradable plastic can therefore be made by existing plastics factories at little or no extra cost, with no need to change their machinery or workforce. A Life-cycle Assessment by Intertek in May 2012 confirmed that oxo-biodegradable plastic had the best LCA of all materials used for making carrier bag and bread bags.

  • Does oxo-bio need to be in special conditions in order to degrade and biodegrade?

No. The only environmental conditions necessary for oxo-biodegradation are oxygen and bacteria, both of which are found everywhere in the open environment. Bio-degradation in landfill is not necessary, and would generate methane.

  • Which claim does OXO-biodegradability make?

It claims that if the plastic is discarded in the environment it will not lie or float around for decades as a problem for future generations. Instead it will become biodegradable much more quickly than ordinary plastic, and will be recycled back into nature by bacteria and fungi.

  • What is the difference between (a) OXO-degradable and (b) OXO-biodegradable?

Oxo- degradable is ordinary plastic. If it is exposed to oxygen and sunlight it will oxidise and become brittle and fall into pieces, but they will not become biodegradable for many decades. (b) Oxo- biodegradable contains a catalyst which accelerates an abiotic change in the molecular structure of the plastic at end of useful life and makes it biodegradable.

  • How long does oxo-bio plastic take to become biodegradable?

Clearly oxo-biodegradable plastic products cannot be designed to degrade instantly, for they would then have no useful life, but as they are designed to degrade and biodegrade much more quickly than conventional plastics there is a much shorter dwell-time for anything to accumulate in eco-systems.

In fact, if oxo-bio plastics had been brought into use even a few years ago the enormous ocean garbage patches would not have accumulated, and most of the plastic would have biodegraded and returned to nature.

The precise timescale depends on the formulation of the plastic product (some are designed to degrade faster than others) and the conditions in the environment where they are lying or floating (sunlight and heat will accelerate the process but are not essential.

They have a specific gravity less than 1, so they will float on the surface where oxygen, sunlight, and bacteria are abundant).

For this reason a broad indication only is given by the OPA as to timescale. It is however possible to say with certainty that at any given time and place in the open environment an oxo-bio plastic item will become biodegradable significantly more quickly than an ordinary plastic item.

That is the point. Do you want plastic which can lie or float around for 100 years, or plastic which will have been recycled back into nature in 2-3 years or less? Of course we don’t want plastic in the sea at all, but that is not the reality for the foreseeable future.

  • Why has OXO degradable a bad reputation? Some professionals say OXO degradability is a scam and a source of micro plastics. What would you say about this?

Nobody would want to sell or buy oxo-bio plastic if it simply fragmented into tiny pieces, but this is not what oxo-bio plastic does. The process is well described by Professor Ignacy Jakubowicz as follows: “The degradation process is not only a fragmentation, but is an entire change of the material from a high molecular weight polymer, to monomeric and oligomeric fragments, and from hydrocarbon molecules to oxygen- containing molecules which can be bioassimilated.”

The reputational problem for oxo-bio is caused by people who do not understand the technology but cannot resist talking and writing about it. We have noticed that many of them do not know the difference between oxo-degradable, oxo-biodegradable, and bioplastics.

As a general point, we have found that reports and literature-reviews by researchers who are not experts in oxo-biodegradable technology show a lack of understanding of the mechanism by which oxo-biodegradable plastics acquire biodegradability, and the function of the stabilisation package.

This leads to testing in conditions, and according to standards, inappropriate for oxo-biodegradable plastics.

Every day we read or hear some opinions about oxo-biodegradable plastic which are complete nonsense, and unfortunately much of this misinformation is widely disseminated. In order to make sure that we had not ourselves misunderstood the science we commissioned an in-depth review of the scientific evidence by a former judge of the High Court in England. He has confirmed that our understanding is correct.

  • What do you say about recycling?

Where plastic products are particularly lightweight and contaminated with other materials, the energy and resources used in collecting, transporting, sorting, cleaning baling and reprocessing are more than those required for producing new plastics, and such cases recycling is not the most economic or environmentally sound option.

These are the very products for which OBP technology is commonly used. PE, PP, and PS are made from ethylene, which is a by-product of refining oil for petrol, diesel and aviation fuel.

Therefore oil would be extracted from the ground in a similar amount even if plastic did not exist. It is said that oxo-degradable plastic packaging cannot be detected by current technology at sufficient scale to be sorted out from conventional plastics.

This is easily remedied by requiring the inclusion of a tracer in the oxo-bio plastic at manufacture which the equipment can recognise, but it is not necessary because oxo-bio plastic can be safely recycled without separation. See the reports by specialist researchers in Austria and South Africa on our website.

In the last four years alone, enough masterbatch has been sold by one OPA member to make 600,000 tonnes of oxo-bio plastic products. We know that those products have been successfully recycled for the past 15 years by OPA members and their customers around the world, and in those 15 years we have heard no reports of any difficulty encountered.

It is said that oxo-degradable plastic packaging is – by its very design – not meant for long-term reusable applications.

This is correct. It is meant for packaging which might become litter, and which is not normally reusable. This does not for example include PET bottles, which are worth collecting and recycling, and for which oxo-biodegradable technology is not suitable.

Even if the points made in relation to recycling were valid, that is no reason to continue to use ordinary plastic, thousands of tons of which are getting into the oceans every day.

These will undoubtedly create microplastics and will pollute the environment for many decades into the future. Dealing with this problem is the most important issue of the day – not recovering the value in low- value plastic materials by mechanical recycling.

  • What is the current legislative context around OXO-biodegradability?

In some countries (notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) the governments have realised that they cannot ban plastic because it is essential for the everyday lives of their people, but they also know that they cannot prevent large amounts of it getting into the environment as litter.

They have therefore legislated to stop people using ordinary plastic and mandated the use of oxo-biodegradable plastic, after doing extensive due-diligence on oxo-bio technology.

By contrast, in Europe there has been a lot of misinformation and political/commercial opposition. The Single-use Plastics Directive (Recital 15) is intended to ban plastic that “does not properly biodegrade and thus contributes to microplastic pollution in the environment, is not compostable, negatively affects the recycling of conventional plastic and fails to deliver a proven environmental benefit.”

This does not apply to oxo-biodegradable plastic, because there is solid scientific evidence that d2w oxo-biodegradable plastic does properly biodegrade, does not contribute to microplastic pollution and does not negatively affect the recycling of conventional plastic.

There is a well-established procedure in the EU for deciding whether substances should be restricted or banned. This was negotiated with all stakeholders and is set out in Arts. 68-73 of the REACH Regulation 1907 of 2006.

In December 2017 the EU Commission acted under Article 69 to request the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to study “oxo-degradable” plastics because the Commission thought that they created microplastics, but on 30th October (ten months into the study) ECHA advised that they were not convinced that microplastics are formed.

If, and only if, ECHA were to recommend a restriction, it would have to be considered by two committees under Articles 70 and 71, and there would have to be a public consultation, before any restriction could be implemented.

None of this has been done, and we are advised that any ban would therefore be legally invalid and unenforceable.

  • Do you think there may be a total ban on OXO-biodegradability in the future? What will be the impact?

This would be a very foolish thing to do. Policymakers must know that they cannot reduce plastic litter to zero even in Europe in the foreseeable future, but they would be trying to deprive people of the means to deal with it.

The amount of plastic in the sea would then inevitably accumulate until there is more plastic than fish, and they will have failed to avert an environmental disaster.

  • Why did you choose this battle?

I didn’t choose this battle, but I do not shrink from it. I know that oxo-biodegradable technology can make a huge contribution to the protection of the world’s environment, and my colleagues and I are not afraid to fight for it.

  • Do you or does the industry have any regrets and / remorse?

We regret that it has proved so difficult to obtain wide acceptance of the technology as yet. We also regret that some stakeholders have not understood the potential of our technology.

All useful technologies should have a place in the marketplace and we should all cooperate to solve the challenges around plastic waste and litter. Even at this stage we would welcome cooperation.

We also regret that the EU has chosen to circumvent ECHA, its own scientific expert body, as this brings the EU itself into disrepute.

  • What is your final word?

In conclusion, I would say that a proven technology is now available to upgrade plastic at very low cost so that it will not lie or float around for decades and be a problem for future generations.

Countries in the Middle East have already legislated to make this technology compulsory for everyday plastic products, and I would urge all other governments to do the same.

Website of OPA