My attention has been drawn to a report commissioned by the Minderoo foundation in Australia. It runs to 286 pages and looks very impressive, but if you actually read the Report it tells us very little that we didn’t know before. We all know that the polymers which are used to make plastic products are made by the big oil and gas companies. We know who these companies are and we also know in general terms how they are financed. The supply-chain for short-life polymer products is also well understood.
However, the report seeks to fix responsibility upon all these companies and their bankers for what it calls a global plastic crisis. There seem to be three elements to this “crisis” in the opinion of the authors 1. the large amount of plastic waste littering the surface of the planet including the oceans 2. CO2 emissions caused by the manufacturer of polymers and 3. the consumption of fossil resources to make the polymer.
It seems to me that the polymer producers are no more responsible for plastic litter than wine or beer producers are responsible for drunken driving. In both cases the responsibility is that of the user of their products.
There is a myth that a huge amount of unnecessary plastic packaging is being produced. If you give a myth enough publicity people will believe it, but in fact the supermarkets and other major retailers cannot afford to spend a single penny on unnecessary packaging if they wish to remain competitive. They do however spend money on plastic packaging, because very often it is the best material for protecting our food and other goods from damage and contamination, and preventing waste and disease. It is for example much better than paper packaging, especially if it gets wet – and it produces less greenhouse gas.
The Report expresses concern about toxic chemicals found in plastics. Most plastics today are perfectly safe but if any concerns are still well-founded the answer is to ban those chemicals, not the plastic.
It is recognised by everyone except the anti-plastic campaigners that there will for good reasons be a large amount of plastic in use in the world for the foreseeable future. If it is collected it can be re-used, recycled or landfilled, but it is actually wasteful to dump plastic in a landfill. It is much better to harness its calorific value for generating electricity instead of using oil or gas to drive the generators. This can be done by modern incinerators which do not emit harmful toxins, and are in use even in city-centres such as Zurich.
The main problem however is not the plastic which gets collected, but the plastic which escapes collection and ends up in the open environment. The Report contains the usual shocking photographs of plastic pollution, but one of the reasons for the accumulation of plastic in the environment is the failure to upgrade the plastic with oxo-biodegradable technology, so that it will biodegrade and be recycled back into nature much more quickly. This technology has now been in commercial use for more than 20 years and it has never been found to cause any problems.
One of the reasons for this failure is lack of understanding of the technology, and that is why websites such as www.biodeg.org and www.d2w.net exist to provide information. Another reason is the ceaseless political campaigning against the technology by the bio-based plastics industry, who see it as a serious competitor for their market-share. Rightly so, because despite all the marketing hype, bio-based plastics make very little sense in economic or environmental terms. They do not for example convert into compost – they convert into CO2 gas, and even the industrial composters and local authorities do not want them – see https://www.biodeg.org/subjects-of-interest/composting/
- Greenhouse Gas
Polymers are made from a by-product of oil and gas, which are extracted primarily for use as fuels for ships, aircraft, motor vehicles, and industrial purposes. The conversion of these by-products into polymers is not an intensive producer of greenhouse gas, and the Minderoo report makes no attempt to prove that it is. In fact it compares favourably with the manufacture of paper, glass, and aluminium, and with the production and polymerisation of crops to make bio-based plastics.
- Fossil resources
There may come a time when oil and gas are no longer needed as fuels, but that is not yet, and in the meantime it makes sense to use the by-product to make plastic. The Report seeks to persuade (even to compel) the polymer producers to become recyclers, but we must be careful not to become obsessed with “circularity.”
Where plastic products are particularly lightweight and contaminated with other materials, the energy and fossil resources used to collect, transport, clean, and process the waste, can be more than those required for producing new plastics. In such cases recycling is not the most environmentally sound option. It is also too costly in financial and environmental terms to collect it, transport it, sort it, bail it, store it, and then reprocess it, and that is why it was being dumped in the forests in Asia. It must also be remembered that plastic cannot be recycled for ever – after each recycling it must be supplemented by virgin polymer.
Whilst almost all pre-consumer waste (eg factory offcuts) is already recycled or reused, almost all post-consumer waste plastic is not. There are good reasons for this, one of which is that a lot of water is needed to wash post-consumer waste to make it useable, so the amount of waste-water generated is enormous. Moreover, this process leaves large quantities of dirty solid waste, including biological waste that is hazardous and highly undesirable.
It must also be remembered that recycled plastic is not biodegradable, and will lie or float around for decades in the environment – unless it is upgraded with d2w technology.
The Minderoo Report fails to prove its case, and is not a useful addition to the literature.
On 29th May I read an article in the Korea Herald with the headline “Despite being touted as a solution to plastic waste problem, biodegradable plastics are not given chance to decompose.” The article quotes a professor at Georgia University that “biodegradable plastic is tremendously confusing, not just to the consumers, but even to many scientists,”
This article adds to the confusion, by failing to identify the reason why there is so much concern worldwide about plastic and by failing to distinguish between the two main types of biodegradable plastic available. The author focuses on plastic “typically made from natural materials such as corn starch” and says that it is designed to break down naturally when it goes to landfills.
In fact, this type of plastic is not designed to break down naturally when it goes to landfills – it is designed to biodegrade in an industrial composting facility. It is usually marketed as “compostable” but this is seriously deceptive marketing. Why? – because the standards to which it is certified eg EN13432, ASTM D6400 require it to convert as to 90% into CO2 gas, not into compost.
This is not therefore a useful way to dispose of plastics, and even the industrial composters and local authorities do not want it. See https://www.biodeg.org/subjects-of-interest/composting/
The author calls this type of plastic biodegradable, but that is also deceptive. In November 2019 the Danish courts ruled that “compostable” plastic must not be described as biodegradable – because it is not biodegradable except in the special conditions found in an industrial composting facility.
The author then says “Most of the waste is either incinerated or recycled, so whether the product is biodegradable isn’t really important.” He is clearly missing the most important point about plastic waste. The problem is not the waste which gets collected, but the waste which does NOT get collected, and cannot therefore be incinerated, recycled or composted.
The only plastic which can truly be described as biodegradable is oxo-biodegradable plastic – because it is designed to biodegrade if it does not get properly disposed of and gets into the open environment. It costs little or no more than regular plastic and will have the same functionality during its useful life. The only difference is that if it gets into the open environment as waste it will become biodegradable very much more quickly, and will not leave microplastics or any toxic residues. See www.d2w.net
If as the author says “companies want to show consumers that they care for the Earth too” they should upgrade all their packaging with oxo-biodegradable technology. This is not blue-sky research – the technology has been established for more than 20 years, and is used all over the world, including Korea.
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
- 1/ 1/ 20 – Plastiphobia, Microplastics and A Throw-Away Society
- 7/ 1/ 20 – Recycling, Lab Testing, Bangladesh and the Right Bioplastic
- 14/1/20 – Plastiphobia and Bioplastics Definitions
- 21/1/20 – Composting, the European Union and Unemployment
- 30/1/20 – Plastiphobia, Malaysia and a Case Against Compostables and Paper
- 7/02/20 – Coronavirus, MPs Letter, Montreal, Australia and the Dominican Republic
- 14/02/20 – Oman, MacArthur Foundation, Stifling Innovation, South Africa and Compostable Plastics
- 24/02/20 – Serbia, India, Pakistan and European Bioplastics
- 03/03/20 – Plastic To Protect Health and Common Sense on Plastic
- 10/03/20 – Plastiphobia, Singapore, Compostable Plastics, Doorknobs and Carbios
- 17/03/20 – Greening our Way to Infection, Defra Warns Against Bioplastics and Montreal
- 24/03/20 – Ditch the Plastic Bag Ban and Inn-Probio
- 01/04/20 – The Come Back of Plastic Bags, Compostable Plastic Not Wanted and EASAC
- 16/04/20 – Coronavirus and Agricultural Plastics
- 11/05/20 – Coronavirus, Peru, Barbados and Recycling
- 18/05/20 – Say No to Plastiphobia, False Descriptions and the Recycling Myth
- 02/06/20 – Definitions and More Setbacks for Plastiphobia
- 11/06/20 – BBIA, Food Waste and Testing of OXO-Biodegradable Plastic
- 19/06/20 – Oxo Biodegradation, Independent Reports and Precautionary Principle
- 29/06/20 – Banana Republic, Why Turn Plastic into CO2 and Plastic Waste from Ships
- 13/07/20 – Running Scared, The Daily Telegraph and Market Report
- 20/07/202 – Tipa, Plastics Today and The American Genius
- 27/07/20 – Coronavirus, Plastic Litter, Bahrain and Polymateria
- 17/08/20 – Plastics Europe, Confusing Issues and Paper
- 25/08/20 – Professor Emo Chiellini, Plastics Today, Greenwashing and Coronavirus
- 28/09/20 – Kill the Virus, Marine Degradation, Airports, Brazil Retail, Plastic Growth and Face Mask
- 08/10/20 – Compostable vs Biodegradable, Covid 19 and New British Bioplastic Standard
- 27/10/20 – Power of Lobbying, Paper and Cotton Worse than Plastic
- 02/11/20 – Covid 19 and Five Myths About Plastic
- 09/11/20 – Support for OXO BIO, Westminster Forum, Euractiv and Covid
- 23/11/20 – Toxicity of Bio-based and Biodegradable Plastics, and Covid Scaremongering
- 15/12/20 – Recycling and An Article from Austria
- 21/12/20 – EU Scientific Advisers, China Chose Wrong Bioplastics and Covid Nonsense
- 05/01/20 – EU, Covid Lockdowns, WRAP, British Standards Institution and Polymateria
- 12/01/21 – Intertek and Composting
- 19/01/21 – Recycling and Exporting Plastic Waste
- 22/02/21 – Seaweed Plastic, Orange Peel and Xampla
- 02/03/31 – OXO Biodegradable Plastic
- 08/03/21 – EU Scientific Reports and Paper vs Plastic
- 15/03/21 – India, Australia and Dow Chemicals
- 14/04/21 – Oxomar, UK Government and Microplastics
- 26/04/21 – Plastic to the Rescue of Covid and More News from Brazil
- 04/05/21 – Packaging Digest
- 07/06/21 – Minderoo Report and Korea Herald
Interview with Michael Stephen
The opinions expressed here by Michael Stephen and other columnists are their own, not those of Bioplasticsnews.com.