Biodegradation & Composting Michael Stephen Column Packaging

Packaging Digest

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about Packaging Digest and Are Biodegradable Additives for Food Packaging a Solution

Packaging Digest

I have been reading an article in Packaging Digest entitled “Are Biodegradable Additives for Food Packaging a Solution? No, They Make It Worse.”

This is a very unscientific evaluation of oxo-biodegradable plastic, which has contributed to the general confusion.  The OPA’s scientists would welcome a debate with the authors. 

There is no dispute that packaging should continue to be designed to have the minimum impact on resources and on the environment, but the reason why plastic is so popular with packaging designers is that it is a very effective and inexpensive material for protecting our food and other products from contamination and damage. Without it there would be much more food-waste and disease.

Oil is extracted from the ground primarily to make fuels, and plastic is made from a by-product of the refining process, which used to be wasted. The only thing wrong with plastic is that if it gets into the open environment as litter it can lie or float around for many decades before eventually biodegrading.

Of course nobody wants plastic in the open environment.  But there are large quantities of plastic that cannot be recycled because they are badly contaminated or escape collection for recycling, and get into the open environment, and there is considerable scope for improving waste management processes. This is the reason why there is so much public concern about plastic.

The authors of the article prefer to think that their ideas for reducing the amount of plastic packaging will solve the problem. Perhaps one day it will, but many years will elapse before pollution by plastic or any other material has been reduced to zero, even in the developed world. In the meantime nobody can be content that conventional plastic continues to accumulate in the open environment when a technology exists to deal with the problem.  If we can reduce the dwell-time of plastic in the environment we can reduce or even reverse the process of accumulation

The authors refer to a variety of additives which they call “distractors.” It is impossible to know what additives they are talking about, so I will confine myself to oxo biodegradable plastic.  Oxo biodegradable technology was invented to deal with long-term environmental pollution by causing the plastic to convert into a waxy biodegradable substance so that it can be recycled back into nature much more quickly than conventional plastic. It has been proved by forty years of scientific study. A Life-cycle Analysis was done by Intertek in 2012  which showed that oxo-biodegradable plastic had the best LCA (including CO2 emissions) of all materials used for making carrier bags and bread bags.

Oxo-biodegradable technology is not designed to provide more space in landfills.  In fact, waste plastic should not be sent to landfill at all, because its calorific value can be captured to generate heat and electricity.  Nor does oxo-biodegradable technology have any relevance to the degradation of paper, or to anaerobic digestion.

The authors are concerned about microplastics, but they must know that these are coming from the fragmentation of conventional plastic when exposed to weathering. The molecular weight of these fragments is too high for biodegradation, so oxo-biodegradable technology was invented to solve the problem of microplastics (by converting the plastic into biodegradable materials) not to create them. The European Chemicals Agency studied oxo-biodegradable plastic in 2018 and were not convinced that microplastics were formed – so on what basis are the authors of this article convinced that the Agency is wrong?  In the light of this evidence the European Union’s ban on “Oxo-degradable” plastic is being challenged in their own courts.   See also the evidence given to ECHA by Intertek 

The authors are concerned that packaging materials can contain hazardous or unknown/untested chemicals and that these are getting into the environment and even into our food. If this is true then they need to argue for them to be prohibited in plastics generally – this is not an issue for oxo-biodegradable plastic.

Like any responsible industry the oxo-biodegradable plastics industry is concerned that its products do not cause harm to people or the environment, so for many years scientific studies have been conducted according to OECD Standards, which show that oxo-biodegradable plastics do not create toxicity.  The most recent study is by the scientists working on the OXOMAR project sponsored by the French National Agency for Research, who carried out detailed tests on marine organisms in 2020 and found that there was no toxicity.  Oxo biodegradable plastics are tested according to ASTM 6954 and similar standards, and they would not pass the test if they contained heavy metals or any other toxic substance.”

Oxo-biodegradable technology has been studied by several governments, especially those in the Middle-East, who have decided to make it mandatory for a wide range of plastic products made in or imported into their countries. 

Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen is a lawyer and was a member of the United Kingdom Parliament, where he served on the Environment Select Committee. When he left Parliament Symphony Environmental Technologies Plc. attracted his attention because of his interest in the environment. He is now Deputy Chairman of Symphony, which is listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, and is the founder and Chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

Earlier Postings in this Column

Interview with Michael Stephen


The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of

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