Michael Stephen Column

Angry Farmers, DEFRA and Substitutes for Plastic (FREE)

Michael Stephen, an international expert on bioplastics, shares his thoughts and opinion on important issues impacting the bioplastics industry. Today, Michael writes about Angry farmers, Defra and Substitutes for Plastic. This is a FREE article.

Angry Farmers

The SUP Directive has angered Irish farmers, who have been using oxo-biodegradable plastic mulching film for many years to grow maize, with very satisfactory results. They have not had to spend time and money removing many hectares of contaminated film from their fields and sending it for disposal.  Instead they have found that it biodegrades soon after the harvest so that it can be ploughed into the field, where it provides a source of carbon for next year’s plants, and does not fill their fields with microplastics.

Sloppy drafting of the SUP Directive has caused confusion in Ireland.  The farmers do not see why a piece of legislation which applies to consumer-products should apply to agricultural films, which are not going to be littered, and where biodegradability is highly desirable. “Nowhere does it mention mulch film or agriculture in the Directive – and all products mentioned are consumer products,” said the CEO of Irish agri-machinery giant Samco, Robert Shine.

An article in the “Agriland” newspaper on 27th July reports that the farmers are seeking clarity on the issue. “The main root of the problem” says Shine, “is that oxo-degradable is included in the SUP Directive, but the film used for the maize crop uses Oxo-Biodegradable (oxo-bio) technology not oxo-degradable.

Highlighting that oxo-degradable and oxo-biodegradable are two different types of degradation – and are given two different definitions in the European CEN standard TR15351 – Robert Shine said “the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) was tasked with testing the oxo-bio technology to ascertain if it created microplastics. After 10 months the ECHA work was closed down as the European Parliament had voted without the report been finished.  This goes against the REACH Regulation which is Europe’s own law to guard against political and industrial lobbying and allow scientific experts to give their report without influence.”

He continued “We employ directly 60 staff as well as countless others in the region as sub contractors – these jobs and livelihoods now face an uncertain time in the coming weeks.This is why we need the Irish government to give answers with certainly to the industry, rather than the uncertain and muted responses we have been given over the last two years.”

Oxo-biodegradable mulching films have also been used in Wales.  See Downloads


In their April 2021 response to their Call for Evidence on Standards for bio-based, biodegradable, and compostable plastics, DEFRA said that the evidence submitted would “help government assess the role and effectiveness of standards, and craft an evidence-based, consistent, and effective policy framework to ensure best use of this valuable material.”

So far so good, but then they say: “There was a clear consensus in relation to plastics containing prodegradant agents aimed at aiding the biodegradation process, which was that such technologies are unproven and likely to be a source of microplastic pollution.”

I thought it unlikely that there was any such consensus, especially as the European Chemicals Agency had found no evidence that these plastics create microplastics, so I made a Freedom of Information request for disclosure of this “evidence.”  There were 84 submissions, but DEFRA has sent only 39 of them. Of these 39, only 4 could be said to give any support DEFRA’s claim, and 3 were positively in favour of oxo-biodegradable plastic.  That does not seem to me like a “clear consensus.”  Of the 4 against, two of these were from the “compostable” plastics industry which is desperate to exclude competition from oxo-biodegradable plastic, and their “evidence” was not only commercially motivated, but consisted simply of assertions with no scientific basis.

I have therefore insisted on full disclosure, for if a policy decision is to be made, it is essential to ensure that it is based on sound science and is not just a response to lobbying. I suspect that most of the submissions do not support DEFRA’s claim, and that those that do support it will be mainly from the “compostable” plastics industry. One of the main protagonists is likely to be the BBIA lobby group, as to which see Symphony Wins Battle of Words with Compostable Plastics Industry

Substitutes for Plastic?

I am often seeing adverts on Instagram from pressure-groups urging people not to use plastic packaging. The adverts show the usual pictures of plastic waste in the sea, but it would not persist in the sea if it had been made with oxo-biodegradable technology. 

What are the alternatives to plastic packaging?

I am reminded of a Life-cycle Assessment by Franklin Associates in April 2018 which concluded that “For the six packaging categories analyzed – caps and closures, beverage containers, stretch and shrink film, carrier bags, other rigid packaging, and other flexible packaging –14.4 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging were used in the US in 2010. If other types of packaging were used to substitute US plastic packaging, more than 64 million metric tonnes of packaging would be required.”

“The substitute packaging would result in significantly higher impacts for all categories evaluated: global warming potential; total energy demand; expended energy; water consumption; solid waste by weight and by volume; acidification; eutrophication; smog formation; and ozone depletion.”

Franklin Associates is a division of Eastern Research Group USA.   They pioneered the life cycle inventory (LCI) concept over 40 years ago and have conducted hundreds of life cycle studies for public and private sector organizations. 


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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