Michael Stephen Column

Recycling, Is the Use of Biobased Plastics Increasing, Confused Australians and Biodegradable Future (FREE)

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about recycling, is the use of biobased plastics increasing, confused Australians and biodegradable future. This is a FREE article.


Four (obvious) points about recycling of plastic:

  1. You cannot recycle plastic unless it has been collected, and recycling does not therefore address the problem of plastic litter in the open environment. It will be many years before all the plastic is collected even in the developed world,
  2. It makes no economic or environmental sense to recycle cheap, contaminated, packaging film.
  3. You cannot recycle a piece of plastic for ever.  You have to add virgin polymer.
  4. Recycled plastic which escapes collection will pollute the environment for just as long as ordinary plastic (unless it is made with oxo-biodegradable technology).

Is the Use of Biobased Plastic Increasing?

According to the Italian Bioplastic Association, the production and use of bio-based compostable plastic has continued to grow since 2020. 

Why should this be?  

  • Is it because the plastic is being turned into compost, and put to good use in agriculture? – no, because the plastic is required by EN13432 to convert not into compost but into CO2 gas. This contributes to climate-change but does nothing for the soil. 
  • Is it because this type of plastic is useful in the fight against plastic litter in the open environment?  – No, because it is tested according to EN13432 to biodegrade in an industrial composting facility, not in the open environment. Para 1 of EN13432 itself says it “does not take into account packaging waste which may end up in the environment through uncontrolled means ie as litter.”  For that reason the Danish courts have ruled that it is deceptive to describe that type of plastic as “biodegradable.”  The only type of plastic specifically designed to biodegrade in the open environment is oxo-biodegradable plastic, tested according to ASTM D6954. 
  • Is it because biobased plastic is useful for collecting food waste and transporting it to composting or anaerobic digestion facilities?  No, because the industry and local authorities do not want it.  See Composting For example, Epsom & Ewell Borough Council in the UK tells its citizens “We used to ask you to use bio-liners to line your food waste caddy, but the food waste recycling companies found that bio-liners compost down much more slowly than the food. That slowed the recycling process and made it much more expensive. They tried dredging the bio liners out of the food waste, but the sticky bio-liners got tangled around the dredging equipment. Cleaning them off was very expensive. So they found that using [ordinary] plastic bags was, overall, more cost-effective.”  
  • Is it because bio-based plastic can biodegrade under anaerobic conditions in landfill?  No, because when it biodegrades under those conditions it generates methane, which is a dangerous greenhouse gas, even more powerful than CO2
  • Is it because bio-based plastic is carbon-neutral?  No, because that would ignore the fossil-based component of bio-based plastic, and the fossil-resources used in the agricultural production and polymerisation process. 

So, if the Italian Bioplastic Association, is right that the production and use of “compostable” plastic has continued to grow in Italy since 2020.  Why should this be?   Could it have anything to do with the fact that the Italian government has supported Italian manufacturers of that type of plastic by legislating in its favour and thereby distorting the market?  Could it also have anything to do with the aggressive lobbying and PR campaigns funded by the bio-based plastics industry to try to persuade consumers and governments to “invest” in their product for no good reason?  They are now trying the same tactic in the UK and elsewhere.

 Australians Confused?

 The main reason why there is so much confusion about biodegradable plastic, is that so many articles are written by people who do not really understand the subject, but write nevertheless in such a confident and persuasive way that people believe them.

I noticed one of these articles in “Eco-Warrior Princess” on 19th June. It said “Many plastics labelled biodegradable are actually traditional fossil-fuel plastics that are simply degradable (as all plastic is) or even “oxo-degradable” — where chemical additives make the fossil-fuel plastic fragment into microplastics. The fragments are usually so small they’re invisible to the naked eye, but still exist in our landfills, waterways and soils.”

It is well known that traditional plastics (ie oxo-degradable plastics) will fragment into microplastics invisible to the naked eye, which may not become biodegradable for many decades.  This is why oxo-biodegradable (as distinct from oxo-degradable) plastic was invented, so that it will become biodegradable much more quickly and will then be cleaned out of the environment by biological processes, leaving no micro-plastics or toxic residues behind. 

Oxo-biodegradable plastics were studied by the European Chemicals Agency in 2018 who, after ten months study, and having gathered a large body of evidence, were not convinced that they created microplastics. Scientific reports published over the past 40 years show that oxo-biodegradable plastics do biodegrade in the open environment, and a very authoritative report published in March 2021 ( Dégradation biotique et abiotique et toxicité des plastiques oxodégradables en milieu marin) confirms biodegradation in the marine environment.  This report was the result of five years’ work by an interdisciplinary team of scientists sponsored by the French government and known as the Oxomar project.  A useful biodegradable plastic is not therefore a “pipe-dream” it is available here and now and at a very low cost.

Australians would be right to phase out “fragmentable” (ie conventional) plastics, but unless they are happy that the remaining plastic waste should lie or float around for decades as a problem for future generations, they would do well to study the subject carefully and make all their short-life plastic with oxo-biodegradable technology.  Standards  already exist for regulating this type of plastic, of which the best-known is ASTM D6954, which should be adopted in Australia.

One point on which I do agree with “Eco-Warrior Princess” is her view that “some biodegradable plastics are made from plant-based materials, but it’s often unknown what type of environment they’ll break down in and how long that would take.  Those items may end up existing for decades, if not centuries, in landfill, litter or ocean as many plant-based plastics actually don’t break down any quicker than traditional plastics.”

Biodegradable Future?

I have noticed some advertising by a company called “Biodegradable Future,” which has started selling “organic additives that help plastic products biodegrade.”

I asked one of the OPA scientists what he thought of their claims.  His comments are in square brackets:

“Microorganisms are naturally attracted to carbon” [no they are not not], “- a compound that plastic contains” [carbon is not a compound]. “However, the carbon strains” [carbon does not have strains] in plastic (polymers) are too long [it’s the molecular chains in the polymer that are too long, not the carbon] making them impossible for microbes to break them down. Our additive changes the DNA of regular plastic [plastic does not have DNA] to make it easily biodegrade when it comes into contact with microbes in landfills, soil and oceans.”

“The hydrolyzation of monomers is the synthesis of our product [don’t understand what they are trying to say]. This is accomplished by adding water and moisture to the bonds [you don’t add water to bonds] Our additives contain key ingredients that introduce specific elements into the polymer structure which inevitably enables hydrolyzation [Again, no idea what they are saying here].”

[The basic premise here seems to be that by adding conventionally biodegradable material at low levels to the polymer you somehow encourage microorganisms to break down the polymer itself. There is no meaningful explanation of how they create any significant oxidation of the carbon backbone of the polymer.  Unless that is done the polymer does not become biodegradable.]

The product being marketed by “Biodegradable Future” is not oxo-biodegradable, and they would not be admitted to the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association.

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 Bioplasticsnews.com.

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