Michael Stephen Column Video

Directors Talk, Confusion, Stir Magazine and Dumping Plastic Waste

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about Director's Talk, Confusion, Stir Magazine and Dumping Plastic Waste. This is a FREE article.

Director’s Talk

I was asked to explain on television last week to a non-technical audience why oxo-biodegradable plastic was invented.  You can find the interview here


I am hearing almost every day from governments and NGO’s that consumers are confused by the various types of biodegradable plastic available on the market. This is mainly due to their own failure to explain it properly and to control misdescription.

BIODEGRADABLE means that the plastic can be degraded by cell-mediated phenomena ie by bacteria and fungi.  There are two main types of biodegradable plastic –

A. tested according to EN13432 or ASTM D6400 to biodegrade in an industrial composting facility, and

B. tested according to ASTM D6954 or BS8472 to biodegrade if it gets into the open environment.

It would be confusing to describe a plastic as “biodegradable” without specifying whether it is type A or type B above.  Also, the Danish courts have decided that it would be seriously misleading to describe type A plastic as biodegradable without making it clear that it is tested to biodegrade in the special conditions found in an industrial composting facility (not in the open environment).

BIO-BASED plastics.  There is no official definition, but they consist of polymerised material from corn or other food-crops (often blended with petroleum-based material).  Some are and some are not biodegradable

BIOPLASTICS: Again there is no official definition, but there are two main types of bioplastics on the market today:

1. Bio-based plastics (because they have a biological content and/or because they are of a type which is biodegradable) and

2. Oxo-biodegradable plastics (because they are biodegradable)

COMPOSTABLE This is a description often applied to type A plastic, but it is misleading and should not be permitted. Yes, it will biodegrade to some extent in an industrial composting unit, but it does not convert into compost.  It is required by EN13432/ASTM D6400 to convert into CO2 gas within 180 days. 

OXO-DEGRADATION is defined by CEN (the European Standards authority) in TR15351 as “degradation identified as resulting from oxidative cleavage of macromolecules.”  This describes ordinary plastics, which abiotically degrade by oxidation in the open environment, but do not become biodegradable except over a very long period of time.

OXO-BIODEGRADATION is defined by CEN as “degradation resulting from oxidative and cell-mediated phenomena, either simultaneously or successively”.  This means that the plastic degrades by oxidation until its molecular weight is low enough to be accessible to bacteria and fungi, who then recycle it back into nature.

Stir Magazine

I noticed an article in this magazine for the coffee and tea industry.  The caption to the photograph says: “Oxo-degradable plastics make up about 70% of marine litter in Europe.”  Clearly the author of this caption knows something that most people don’t.  As indicated above, “oxo-degradable” plastics are ordinary plastics, which abiotically degrade by oxidation in the open environment, but do not become biodegradable except over a very long period of time, and it is probably true that they make up about 70% of marine litter in Europe.  By contrast I am not aware that any oxo-biodegradable plastics have ever lasted long enough in the marine environment to be found by a researcher.

Dumping Plastic Waste

A Labour MP, Lyn Brown asked the UK Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on 19th July 2021 “How the UK is still dumping plastic waste on the rest of the world, published by Greenpeace on the 17 May 2021, and what steps his Department is taking to reduce the UK’s plastic footprint.”  The implication here is that there is something wrong with exporting plastic waste.

If the UK cannot or will not process its own plastic waste, it makes sense to export it to a country which has the capacity to process it – by recycling or incineration. The focus of the UK government should therefore be not on banning the export, but on refusing to issue a licence to the exporter unless satisfied that it will be processed in a responsible manner, with due regard to human health and the environment.  If Greenpeace discovers that this is not being done the exporter would risk a very substantial fine.  The government of the receiving country has a corresponding obligation to ensure that the waste is processed responsibly if it wishes its people to benefit from this export trade.

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.